When Republican Mark Green met with the Wisconsin Realtors Association to seek its endorsement for governor, he touted his long record in the state Legislature and Congress on issues important to real estate agents.
"I'm with you when it's hard and when it's easy; Jim Doyle is only with you when it's easy," Green told the group, according to Michael Theo, its vice president for public affairs. "He told us, ‘I know Realtors. I know real estate. I've fought for you for years.'"
Green's pandering to interest groups like these - something incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has also done - has paid off. Literally.
Real estate agents have funneled $86,128 into Green's campaign war chest through two political action committees, making the Realtors the biggest PAC constituency for Green so far, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's analysis of campaign finance reports.
The reports, which cover the period through Aug. 28, show that Doyle has raised a total of $8 million to Green's $4.5 million, although Green has been raising more than Doyle in recent months. Both candidates reported about the same amount of cash on hand: $3.7 million for Green compared to $4 million for Doyle. (The final pre-election report, current through Oct. 23, will be released Oct. 30.)
But direct contributions tell only part of the story. The Wisconsin Realtors Association has also sent DVDs of Green making his pitch to real estate agents to its 4,600 member offices statewide.
"We've contributed the maximum amount through our PAC," says Theo. "And we're encouraging our members to contribute personally as well."
Why are real estate agents so interested in the governor's race? Their reasons include big issues like school financing and little issues like tax-deductible health savings accounts and legal liability reform.
Labor unions, meanwhile, are the single largest source of PAC contributions to Doyle, giving more than $180,000 through August. They also have their pet issues, such as concern over GOP attempts to restrict collective-bargaining rights.
"We're enthusiastically supporting Gov. Doyle," says Michael Murphy, president of AFSCME 40. "Unfortunately, it takes more money than I would like." Murphy says the union is working hard to convince its 60,000 members to get behind Doyle - with their votes, and their pocketbooks.
The final weeks of the governor's race are when big money matters most. The payoff for months of fund-raising - years in Doyle's case - is the onslaught of television advertising aimed at convincing the masses to vote for, or against, one candidate.
"We're into the last three weeks, and this is a close race," says Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "And a lot of people just look to 2002 and say the big difference was TV ad spending."
In all, Heck says, spending in the current governor's race could top $30 million. The two campaigns could burn through about $20 million, with another $10 million coming in the form of independent expenditures, soft money from national and state parties and unregulated issue ads.
In 2002, Doyle spent slightly less than incumbent Scott McCallum, but the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and state Indian tribes gave Doyle the spending edge. This year, the role of these outside groups, who often wait until late in the race to make their presence known, remains unclear.
Political observers expect the tribes to support Doyle, who in his first term relaxed state controls on Indian casinos. Four years ago, the Oneida, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes gave more than $770,000 to the Democratic National Committee, which in turn funneled $1 million to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
WEAC, which backed Doyle in 2002 with about $1.4 million in independent expenditures and issue ads, is also expected to be a key player this year. WEAC supports the governor for his opposition to school spending controls that restrain teacher pay and his vetoes of the state Legislature's cuts to K-12 spending.
This week, ads aired attacking Green's record on prescription drugs, paid for by WEAC's PAC.
Meanwhile, one of the state's potentially biggest players, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, says it plans to sit this one out. According to group president Jim Haney, "I don't think we're doing anything with the governor's race."
Although there's still time for WMC to change its mind, this approach would mirror the one taken by the group in 2002. Politically, it may represent some smart calculus. Green is already inclined to support the interests of big business. And, if WMC did spend significantly against Doyle and he won, it could erode his support for business interests, which Doyle has bent over backwards trying to court.
Wisconsin's 16 biggest TV stations ran more than 36,000 political ads in 2002, charging $12.8 million. TV ads have become the most important communications tool of the modern political campaign. Forget the pesky reporter questions, the hand-shaking public appearances and the risky substantive debates. Those are all secondary to the 30-second ads.
Ads are important because they work. Last week, several news cycles were consumed with Green's newfound obsession with illegal immigration. Newspaper reporters dug into Wisconsin's new crisis of illegal immigration, TV news stories probed the lives of immigrants, and talk radio was abuzz. All this was prompted by Green's dark ad about Jim Doyle's supposedly sympathetic policies toward illegal immigrants, aimed at infuriating right-wingers into voting.
Before the ad, illegal immigration was not a campaign issue, nor did it rank anywhere near the top of priorities for Wisconsin voters.
"It's not true that advertising alone buys an election," says Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor. "But it's especially true for a challenger that you have to be visible on the air. It's easy to overstate the importance of the presence of advertising, but the absence of advertising is just devastating."
Ads matter more to Green, says Franklin, because he needs to attain visibility and name recognition. Early Green ads support Franklin's theory: Just look at Green's attempt to attack his "extremist" label with a well-crafted ad portraying Green as a friendly, fun dad playing basketball with his kids.
But running ads takes money, lots of it. And, as in the 2002 governor's race, the nexus between money and policy has dominated the campaign.
"Doyle and Green have tailored their ads and they've selected the issues they're willing to govern on, and for the most part, their ads are a sincere reflection of their beliefs," Franklin says. "But then there are the below-the-radar things, where political contributions become more dicey or questionable from the standpoint of good government.
"Who the hell knows about the small amendments that get slipped into bills? That's the way for campaign money to have influence. Those things happen so below-the-radar that even journalists have a hard time detecting them, let alone the public as a whole."
On the issues, Green and Doyle are worlds apart. The high stakes of the election - a Green victory could mean complete Republican domination of the state Capitol - is motivating interest groups to pour money into the race.
"We've never been in a position before where it's this dire," says Lisa Boyce, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, which as of the last filing period has backed Doyle with about $20,000 in independent expenditures. "The differences are so extreme, and the opportunities are so great, for this one individual to dramatically impact women's rights to health care."
Boyce says Green has previously supported legislation to eliminate funds for family planning services for poor women; opposed insurance coverage for birth control; and supports the state's inert statute that criminalizes abortion, which would become enforceable again if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the right to legal abortions.
Green, helpfully, doesn't hide from his position, declaring in the Oct. 6 gubernatorial debate that he thinks women seeking abortion may see it as "a safety net." He says he wants to help them "realize there are alternatives and choices out there." Boyce, in response, charged that Green "does not trust women to make their own personal, private medical decisions in consultation with her family and physician without government intrusion."
As governor, Doyle has regularly affirmed his support for legal abortion and blocked legislative efforts to restrict it. During the last session, he vetoed a bill that would have required medical providers to give women considering abortions unproven information about fetal pain.
Doyle also vetoed a bill, backed strongly by pro-life groups, that would have severely restricted embryonic stem cell research. Green, in contrast, sided with President Bush, and against the majority of Congress (including several Republicans), in upholding Bush's veto of a bill that would have expanded federal support for this research.
Green's biggest campaign theme is taxes, which he vows to reduce, while being exasperatingly vague as to how. This may be especially difficult given his promises not to reduce education funding or seek further cuts in the state workforce. Asked about Milwaukee's crime problems during the last debate, Green started off by saying, "I don't believe our crime problems are because we underspend," and ended up promising to put "more cops in the streets in those high-crime areas."
The UW System has also emerged as a political football. Green has hammered Doyle for rising tuition costs but doesn't reveal he favored federal financial aid cuts. Doyle notes that the primary cause of tuition hikes is the reduction in state funding from a GOP-controlled Legislature.
On gun control, the next governor will likely decide whether Wisconsin will allow its citizens to carry concealed weapons. After Republicans failed to override Doyle's veto of the concealed-carry bill, legislators warned that NRA money would be a big factor in re-election bids. They were right: The National Rifle Association has dominated early independent expenditures, spending $132,000 against Doyle and $47,000 in favor of Green.
Mark Green has never led in a poll against Doyle, but the latest shows that Doyle's lead has fallen to within the statistical margin of error. The race could go either way, which explains why some cash cows have been giving money to both candidates.
"There's an uncertainty about who's going to win," says the UW's Franklin. "So if you're an interest group, you really want to hedge your bets because there could be a huge policy change, depending on this election."
An analysis of PAC contributions through August shows countless examples of double-giving. The Milwaukee Police Association PAC gave Green $5,000 and Doyle $4,000; the Realtors PAC gave Green $43,000 and Doyle $15,750; the Wisconsin Dental PAC gave Green $36,400 and Doyle $5,000.
"Look at the road builders and the construction trades," says Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "Their philosophy is that either party can pour concrete. They want access and clout with whoever ends up in control, and they don't care if it's a Democrat or Republican." Doyle has received about $18,500 from construction PACs; Green about $45,000.
"With campaigns being so expensive, there's a natural intersection between fund-raising and public-policy-making," says McCabe. "The lobbyists and big donors and politicians come to that intersection, and they don't keep at arm's length. It becomes a place where one infects the other. Fund-raising infects policy-making, and policy-making infects fund-raising."
McCabe pauses, then ties it up with a bow: "And we've seen what this all leads to - a parade of lawmakers in courtrooms and jail cells."
Interestingly, both Doyle and Green have lamented the negativity and "mudslinging" in the campaign. Green complained in the last debate that he doesn't like what his kids have to see on TV, referring to the negative ads. Doyle responded by saying that Green's camp began running negative ads first, more than a year ago.
Their complaints, of course, are given with a wink and a nod. After all, these TV ads are what today's political campaigns are all about.