Outside Spending, Outsized Influence

Big and secret money in Wisconsin in the 2012 elections

Super PACs dominated the 2012 Senate election between Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson, providing an avenue for floods of out-of-state money to fill WIsconsin's airwaves with negative ads. Outside groups (not the candidates or party committees) spent almost $32 million and virtually all of that money (99.2%) came from out of state groups. Super PACs allowed big money special interests to flood the Wisconsin elections, blocking regular WI voter out of the political discourse.


WISPIRG Foundation, People for the American Way Foundation

The 2012 elections were by far the most expensive in history thanks primarily to the tidal wave of outside, special interest money triggered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  The federal Senate and House races in Wisconsin, where outside groups spent nearly $32 million, were no exception.


Super PACs, the newly created groups that can raise and spend unlimited funds in elections, spent over $16.2 million on Wisconsin federal elections.  Nationwide, Super PACs raised 86% of funds from an elite set of ultra-wealthy donors and businesses giving $100,000 or more.

Super PACs also received $101,749,662 from business corporations last year.  Allowing special interests to fund attack ads on candidates distorts our democracy in an attempt to ensure that our elected officials put industry and out-of-state interests above the common good.

[Download report to see graphs]

[Outside Spending: 501(c)(4) $8,483,882.52, 26.57%; 501(c)(6) $2,911,906.00, 9.12%; 527 $3,682,444.38, 11.53%; SuperPAC $16,209,342.85, 50.76%; Other $648,600.00, 2.03%; Total $31,936,175.75]


Dark money groups accounted for 35.68% of all outside spending in Wisconsin House and Senate races. These groups do not disclose the source of their funds, hiding critical information from voters about who is behind the advertising and what interests are backing which candidates.

[Download report to see graphs]

[Secret Spending: Secret $11,395,788.52, 35.68%; Not Secret $20,540,387.23, 64.32%]


Groups federally registered outside of Wisconsin accounted for 99.22% of all outside spending in Wisconsin House and Senate races.  Out-of-state spenders are likely to put their own priorities ahead of the needs and interests of Wisconsinites, thus skewing the relationships that Representatives and Senators have with their constituencies.

[Download report to see graphs]

 [Spending Origin: In-State$249,106.14, 0.78%; Out-of-State $31,687,069.61, 99.22%]


1)      MAJORITY PAC – $4,895,184.41 – Super PAC

2)      CROSSROADS GRASSROOTS POLICY STRATEGIES – $4,717,104.55 – Dark Money Group

3)      WOMEN VOTE! – $3,335,426.00 – Super PAC

4)      US CHAMBER OF COMMERCE – $2,911,906.00 – Dark Money Group

5)      AMERICAN CROSSROADS  – $2,665,091.00 – Super PAC



1)      CROSSROADS GRASSROOTS POLICY STRATEGIES – $48,440,338.67 – Dark Money Group

2)      MAJORITY PAC – $37,865,453.41 – Super PAC

3)      US CHAMBER OF COMMERCE – $32,676,075.00 – Dark Money Group

4)      HOUSE MAJORITY PAC – $30,686,449.27 – Super PAC

5)      FREEDOMWORKS FOR AMERICA – $19,045,274.64 – Super PAC


The authors are indebted to Demos and the Sunlight Foundation, who graciously provided data for this analysis.

The Sunlight Foundation provided Demos/US PIRG with Federal Election Commission (FEC) data regarding Independent Expenditures and Electioneering Communications. Demos/US PIRG then identified the IRS designation for each spending committee and the location each expenditure was made. PFAW/US PIRG took that data and identified the state that each spending committee was registered with the FEC. PFAW/US PIRG then removed all presidential expenditures and all party committee expenditures, and analyzed the data to identify the conclusions made above.

Electorally driven issue advocacy that fell outside of the FEC reporting window – 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary election for federal office – was not tracked by any public agency in the 2012 elections.  This reporting gap prevents the public from knowing the full extent of outside spending on elections.  We can assume, from what little information we have acquired from private entities that do track this information, that outside spending, particularly outside spending from secret sources, is substantially underestimated in this and in any other election spending analysis.  For more information on this subject, please read Demos and US PIRG’s report, “Million Dollar Megaphones.”


FEC reporting requirements specific to independent expenditures only require entity to disclose contributions to it over $200 that are made specifically for the purpose of furthering the independent expenditure

501(c)(4) – Non-profit social welfare organizations (not required to disclose most donors)

501(c)(5) Union – Labor, agricultural, or horticultural organizations (required to disclose most donors)

501(c)(6) – Trade associations (not required to disclose most donors)

527 – An entity that exists primarily for the purpose influencing or attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election or appointment of any person to federal, state or local public office (required to disclose donors)

Super PAC – An independent expenditure-only organization that is not subject to contribution limits (required to disclose donors)

Other – All other entities

Outside spending refers to spending by groups independent of campaigns or political parties.  These outside groups are legally prohibited from coordinating with campaigns.  Citizens United v. FEC and subsequent cases that relied on its holdings led to increases in outside spending in elections by removing a number of restrictions and/or prohibitions on corporate and union political activity.