Contributions show power of incumbents

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010
— If the Nov. 2 elections were held today, Mike Sheridan would in all likelihood win re-election to his Janesville Assembly seat, hands-down.

So would Sen. Neal Kedzie in the 11th Senate District and Sen. Jon Erpenbach in the 27th Senate District.

That’s not the result of intensive polling. It’s an analysis of campaign contributions. These incumbents are swimming in cash compared with their opponents.

It’s early in the campaign, to be sure, and potential donors are still waiting to see who wins the primaries before jumping in.

But even for the early going, it is apparent that, as usual, rivers of money flow to incumbents while challengers are lucky to see a trickle.

But does money determine elections?

You bet it does, said Mike McCabe, director of the reform-minded Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

“I would say that money is the single best predictor of the ouctome of state elections. I think that’s a sad reality, but I think it’s a reality,” McCabe said.

On the other hand, if the candidate is a lousy campaigner or is carrying troubling baggage, “all the money in the world is not going to save that candidate,” McCabe said.

Kenneth R. Mayer, a professor of political science at UW-Madison, noted Sheridan is far outdistancing his opponents, with more than $73,000 collected in the first half of this year. His nearest competitor, Joe Knilans, reported $6,500.

Sheridan’s contributions for the first six months of 2010 are the third-highest among candidates for the Assembly’s 99 seats.

To make things tougher for the challengers, Sheridan is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature.

“Money flows to power,” McCabe said. “When you look at who raises the most money at the state Capitol year after year, it’s the people who are in positions of leadership.”

It’s not just the money itself, Mayer said. It’s also because the money shows how competitive people think the race is going to be.

“People are generally going to be reluctant to give money to someone if they don’t think they have a chance to win,” Mayer said.

It’s a vicious cycle for challengers: If they have little money, they have little chance of winning, but with little chance of winning, people don’t give them money, Mayer said.

Sheridan has at least one weakness: He was found to be having an affair with a lobbyist for the payday loan industry at a time when the Legislature was considering restrictions on how payday loaners could do business.

But Mayer stills sees Sheridan winning in a cakewalk: “You would have expected that if he was in real trouble, it would have produced some real Democratic opposition.”

Sheridan has no primary opponent. His Republican challengers, meanwhile, have to wrestle each other to see which one will be left standing after a September primary.

Records show Sheridan’s contributions come from a variety of local and out-of-district individuals, people with connections to corporations such as AT&T, political action committees and quite a few unions.

Sheridan’s four Republican opponents, so far, are largely self-financed.

Joe Knilans and Charles Knipp listed only themselves as contributors in their required July filings with the Government Accountability Board.

Kenneth Brotheridge has a few contributions, most of the money from himself.

Bill Truman shifted $680 from his city council campaign fund.

McCabe noted that there’s still plenty of time for contributions to roll in, and once a single Republican is challenging Sheridan, things could change.

“Sheridan has an enormous advantage,” McCabe said. “The question is whether people see him as vulnerable. And then, do they see a realistic alternative?”

After the election, the big question is whether contributors get anything for their money.

McCabe sees tax breaks, government contracts and pork-barrel projects connected to campaign contributions.

McCabe said his organization has chronicled dozens of instances over the years where large contributions went to chairpersons of committees who have influence over areas the donors interested in.

Mayer disagrees: “The full story is almost always going to more complex.”

Studies usually show that most contributors give because they favor the candidate’s ideals, Mayer said.

On the other hand, Mayer acknowledged, some politicians have been imprisoned for taking what amounts to campaign contributions in exchange for getting state contracts or legislation favorable to a particular organization or business.


Here are the amounts of campaign contributions raised in the first half of 2010, according to figures compiled the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, in local Assembly and state Senate races:

11th Senate

Neal Kedzie, Rep. (I), $125,921

L.D. “Red” Rockwell, Dem., $1,562

15th Senate

Rick Richard, Rep., $45,270

Tim Cullen, Dem., $43,927

27th Senate

Jon Erpenbach, Dem. (I), $74,968

Kurt Schlicht, Rep., $10,806

Tony Wickersham, Rep., $844

31st Assembly

Steve Nass, Rep. (I), $6,252

Craig Peterson, Rep.*

Leroy Watson, Lib.*

32nd Assembly

Adam Gibbs, Rep., $19,900

Dan Necci, Rep., $13,542

Tyler August, Rep., $7,519

Doug Harrod, Dem., $5,080

Thomas Stelling, Rep., $1,500

Daniel Kilkenny, Ind., $1,000

Mel Nieuwenhuis, Rep., $711

John Finley, Rep., $150

Rick Pappas, Ind.*

43rd Assembly

Kim Hixson, Dem. (I), $29,601

Evan Wynn, Rep., $12,980

44th Assembly

Mike Sheridan, Dem. (I), $73,271

Joe Knilans, Rep., $6,500

Kenneth Brotheridge, Rep., $2,200

Charles Knipp, Rep., $2,000

Bill Truman, Rep., $680

45th Assembly

Roger Anclam, Dem., $22,275

Jeff Klett, Rep., $15,332

Jim Reseburg, Rep., $7,372

Amy Loudenbeck, Rep., $3,425

Rick Valdez, Dem., $1,111

80th Assembly

Janis Ringhand, Dem. $12,672

Dan Henke, Rep. $3,040

83rd Assembly

Scott Gunderson, Rep. (I), $25,867

Aaron Robertson, Dem., $147


(I) Incumbent

* Exempt from campaign finance reporting

Note: “Dem.” indicates a Democrat, “Rep.” a Republican, “Lib.” a Libertarian and “Ind.” an independent.

Last updated: 2:49 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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