The other day a reporter from Swedish Public Television contacted the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism regarding the role of super PACs in Wisconsin's historic recall elections.
"How much money are we talking about?" the reporter asked. "Which conservative super PAC is the main one? And on the Democratic side?"
It fell to us to point out that super PACs are actually a federal animal, spawned in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark January 2010 ruling in Citizens United. There are no super PACs active in Wisconsin state campaigns.
It's a source of confusion for many observers, not just those from Sweden.
The Christian Science Monitor last fall incorrectly identified the pro-recall political action committee United Wisconsin as a super PAC. A recent offering by Joe Heller, the excellent state editorial cartoonist, pegged "Super PAC ads" as playing a major role in the race between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic re-challenger Tom Barrett.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, says he gets asked often, by reporters and others, about super PACs in state campaigns. It falls to him to set them straight.
In fact, the Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited "independent expenditures" on electoral campaigns, did give rise to a new entity in Wisconsin.
These are known as 1.91 groups, named after an emergency rule (PDF) passed by the Government Accountability Board in May 2010. The rule, which becomes permanent July 1, requires these groups to register as corporations and file regular reports. But, McCabe says, it falls short of requiring complete disclosure of funding sources.
As a result, federal super PACs must disclose substantially more information than state 1.91 groups, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts without specifying where it comes from. That's why McCabe's group has taken to calling them "super-duper PACs."
A case in point: Advancing Wisconsin, a corporation active in the 2010 election, has reported raising a total of $294,070. Of this amount, $270,500 is listed as coming from "Advancing Wisconsin Inc."
Since August 2010, about 50 groups, from People for the American Way to the National Rifle Association, have registered with the GAB as corporations. (For a list, visit cfis.wi.gov, click "View Registrants" and select "Corporations.")
Spending by these groups is a moving target, as ad buys are being made and reported daily. Through May 29, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign tallied $9.9 million in recall spending by 15 different 1.91 groups, compared to $8.8 million by 16 ordinary PACs.
Groups making independent expenditures in Wisconsin can engage in outright advocacy, urging votes for or against given candidates, just like the candidates' own campaigns. The current recall election involves record-breaking sums, like the more than $30 million raised by Walker since the start of his term, compared to about $4 million raised by Barrett since March.
There is another category of campaign player, those running so-called "issue ads," which avoid telling people how to vote but clearly aim to sway them. These groups are unregulated in Wisconsin, and the only way to gauge their involvement is by tracking ad buys and estimating other costs.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has identified nine such groups that through May 29 have poured money into the current recalls. This is on top of the $18 million in issue-ad buys in last year's Senate recalls, of the $44 million that was spent overall.
Most issue ad spending went to support Republicans. Indeed, McCabe has said this undercuts a recent report that both parties and their supporters have since January 2011 raised equal sums, about $41 million, because this component was left out.
"If such undisclosed interest group money were included in the recall money analysis," McCabe writes, "roughly a $20 million fundraising edge for the Republicans emerges."
We may lack true super PACs in Wisconsin, but we certainly do have super spending.
Bill Lueders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.