The two candidates for the 24th Senate District, which includes Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Tomah and Sparta, raised and spent nearly $2 million in a race that was ultimately won by incumbent state Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point).
That’s one of the most expensive races in the history of the Wisconsin State Legislature, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by the Point/Plover Metro Wire and The Badger Project.
In a sign of the times, the previous spending record for the legislature was actually broken four times in the 2020 campaign cycle.
In the tally that matters most, Testin held the seat easily with more than 56% of more than 95,000 votes cast.
But his challenger, retired police officer Paul Piotrowski, won the money game. The Democrat raised and spent more than $1.1 million, most of which came from his political party. Testin raised and spent more than $700,000.
The Republican state senator said his campaign was able to overcome the big difference in spending.
“While money is important and it certainly plays a factor, at the end of the day it’s who is willing to go out there and work the hardest and wear out the shoe leather to get their message out,” he said.
Ed Miller, a political science professor at UW-Stevens Point who taught both candidates, said Democrats spent heavily because they thought they could flip a seat they had held as recently as 2012.
“Most importantly,” Miller said, the state GOP drew the 24th State Senate District in 2011 to include rural areas to the west and south of Stevens Point, making it a safer seat for Republicans.
Piotrowski, who said he would not run again, lamented that rural areas had shifted to the right, making his path to victory more difficult.
Campaign finance laws weakened; floodgates open
Elections for the 24th District — and the rest of the state — used to see much smaller amounts of campaign cash raised. Between 2000 and 2012, the general election for the seat never saw the two candidates raise and spend more than $150,000.
But in 2016, Testin and the incumbent Democrat raised nearly $850,000. In 2020, the total haul for the seat was more than double that.
The explosion in cash from political parties in recent years can be directly attributed to the weakening of Wisconsin campaign finance laws in the last decade, said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state.
In 2015, after court cases effectively removed donation limits to and from political parties, the Republican-controlled state legislature further diluted restrictions.
Those events have left a gaping hole in Wisconsin campaign finance law. While individuals are limited in what they can donate directly to a candidate, super rich donors can now give unlimited amounts to political parties, which can turn around and give unlimited sums to candidates.
Wealthy donors are increasingly taking advantage of this. In 2020, out-of-state billionaire liberals like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, and Karla Jurvetson, a California physician, donated $2.5 million and $2.8 million, respectively, to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Billionaires Diane Hendricks of ABC Building Supply, who lives in the Beloit area, and Elizabeth Uihlein of Uline Shipping Supplies, who splits time between Chicago and Wisconsin, last year gave $2.4 million and $1 million to state Republicans, respectively.
That mass of cash to political parties, and the lack of limits on those parties, is how Piotrowski was able to receive more than $800,000 from the Democratic Party, and Testin was able to receive nearly $250,000 from the state GOP. By contrast, an individual can only give a state Senate candidate in Wisconsin a maximum of $2,000 per election.
“It’s just astonishing that the price tag for running for office just continues to shatter the ceiling into the stratosphere,” Rothschild said.
Democrats have introduced a bill in the Republican-controlled legislature that would apply limits on donations to and from political parties in Wisconsin, but Republicans ignored it.
Testin said he was open to campaign finance reforms, but was noncommittal about closing the specific loophole to and from political parties.
“We’d have to take a look,” he said.
Not including contributions from the GOP, Testin raised about $500,000.
He received a lot of financial support from big business. The political action committees for Alliant Energy, Charter Communications, General Motors, Walmart, Festival Foods and Humana all gave him the maximum $2,000. Corporations, tribes and unions are forbidden from donating directly to candidates, but they can have their own PACs, which can raise money, often from employees or members. These organizations can donate directly to candidates.
The powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association also both gave Testin the maximum $2,000, as did state trade associations for realtors, builders, dentists and anesthesiologists.
Piotrowski raised about $300,000, not including the $800,000 he got from the Democratic Party.
He donated more than $10,000 to his own campaign.
Organized labor was also a big supporter. Piotrowski received the maximum $2,000 from union political action committees representing electrical workers, teamsters, sheet metal workers, teachers, carpenters and train engineers.
Independent spending on attack ads
The record campaign spending in the race for the 24th District in the Wisconsin State Senate does not even include independent spending, which falls in a separate category.
These shadowy organizations, some of which are called Super PACs, are generally prohibited from coordinating with political campaigns, but they can raise and spend unlimited amounts attacking or promoting a candidate or an issue on the airwaves, online or in print. The 2010 Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court allowed for the creation of some groups and unleashed others. Also, some independent spending groups are not required to disclose their donors.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group of the Koch Brothers network, spent more than $90,000 on things like mailing brochures and online advertising in support of Testin.
The independent spending groups including For Our Future, formed by former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, the Monona-based A Better Wisconsin Together, which is associated with the liberal One Wisconsin Now, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a coalition of labor, environment, senior citizen and other groups, spent more than $80,000 on things like online and mail advertising in support of Piotrowski.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
TOP DONORS TO TESTIN
|CMTE TO ELECT A REPUBLICAN SENATE OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$122,834|
|WISCONSIN REPUBLICAN PARTY||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$116,543|
|DUDAS, MICHAEL||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$6,000|
|WISCONSIN CREDIT UNION LEAGUE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$3,000|
|WISCONSIN BANKERS ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$3,000|
|LUDINGTON, DAVD P||INDIVIDUAL||ONALASKA||WI||$3,000|
|WISCONSIN ASSOCIATION OF NURSE ANESTHETISTS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,500|
|HOFFMAN, JAMES||INDIVIDUAL||BLACK RIVER FALLS||WI||$2,750|
|WISCONSIN REALTORS ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN BUILDERS ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN DENTAL ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN ENERGY CORP||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN INSURANCE ALLIANCE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN BEER DISTRIBUTORS ASSOCIATION||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|TAVERN LEAGUE OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||FITCHBURG||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN SOCIETY OF ANESTHESIOLOGISTS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|ASSOCIATED BUILDERS & CONTRACTORS OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|DEVIN LEMAHIEU CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||OOSTBURG||WI||$2,000|
|CITIZENS FOR TIFFANY||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MERRILL||WI||$2,000|
|HENDRICKS, KIMBERLEE K (KIM)||INDIVIDUAL||JANESVILLE||WI||$2,000|
|DAVIS, DWIGHT E||INDIVIDUAL||MOSINEE||WI||$2,000|
|CMTE TO ELECT JOAN BALLWEG||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MARKESAN||WI||$2,000|
|HALL, ANTHONY||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$2,000|
|PAVELSKI, JEREMIE M||INDIVIDUAL||WISCONSIN RAPIDS||WI||$2,000|
|ROGER J ROTH JR CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||APPLETON||WI||$2,000|
|FESTIVAL FOODS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||DE PERE||WI||$2,000|
|AGGREGATE PRODUCERS OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|ALLIANCE OF HEALTH INSURERS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|PAVELSKI, ALICIA||INDIVIDUAL||WISCONSIN RAPIDS||WI||$2,000|
|ROBERTS, PAUL||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$2,000|
|DAN FEYEN CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||FOND DU LAC||WI||$2,000|
|MARY CZAJA FELZKOWSKI CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MECHANICSBURG||PA||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN PHYSICAL THERAPY||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|HUMANA INC P A C||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC||$2,000|
|BELL AMBULANCE INC EMPLOYEES||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|MURILLO, SHARON||INDIVIDUAL||ELM GROVE||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC||$2,000|
|LIEGEL, SIMON||INDIVIDUAL||SPRING GREEN||WI||$2,000|
TOP DONORS TO PIOTROWSKI
|STATE SENATE DEMOCRATIC CMTE OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$518,530|
|WISCONSIN DEMOCRATIC PARTY||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$336,620|
|PIOTROWSKI, PAUL||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$10,333|
|INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS / IBEW||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC||$2,000|
|INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS / IBT||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC||$2,000|
|SHEET METAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION / SMWIA||NON-INDIVIDUAL||NORTH OLMSTED||OH||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN LABORERS DISTRICT COUNCIL||NON-INDIVIDUAL||DE FOREST||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION COUNCIL REGION 6||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MOSINEE||WI||$2,000|
|UAW REGION 4||NON-INDIVIDUAL||SHEBOYGAN||WI||$2,000|
|WISCONSIN STATE COUNCIL OF CARPENTERS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|BROTHERHOOD OF LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEERS & TRAINMEN / BLET||NON-INDIVIDUAL||INDEPENDENCE||OH||$2,000|
|UIHLEIN, LYNDE B||INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|BURNS, TIMOTHY W||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|COULEE REGION UNITED EDUCATORS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||LACROSSE||WI||$2,000|
|JON ERPENBACH SENATE CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MIDDLETON||WI||$2,000|
|ELECTRICAL WORKERS LOCAL 494||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|PLUMBERS & GASFITTERS LOCAL 75||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MILWAUKEE||WI||$2,000|
|MCCABE, RONALD||INDIVIDUAL||WISCONSIN RAPIDS||WI||$2,000|
|MUNSEY, JUDY||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$2,000|
|SHILLING FOR SENATE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||LA CROSSE||WI||$2,000|
|NOEL, JOHN M||INDIVIDUAL||PLOVER||WI||$2,000|
|NOEL, PATRICIA D (PATTY)||INDIVIDUAL||PLOVER||WI||$2,000|
|KATRINA SHANKLAND CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$2,000|
|JANET BEWLEY CAMPAIGN CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||ASHLAND||WI||$2,000|
|AFSCME WISCONSIN COUNCIL 32||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$2,000|
|NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC REDISTRICTING CMTE||NON-INDIVIDUAL||WASHINGTON||DC||$2,000|
|KERN, DEBORAH||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI||$2,000|
|MILLER, JOHN W W||INDIVIDUAL||FOX POINT||WI||$2,000|
|MIGAS, ROSALIE A||INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$1,850|
|VILS, MARY||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$1,800|
|WOOD COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTY||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MARSHFIELD||WI||$1,500|
|FRIENDS OF KELDA ROYS||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$1,500|
|KIRSCH, MATTHEW||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$1,450|
|MCKEE, CHARLES||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$1,250|
|RAY, CAL||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$1,250|
|GROOS, FRED||INDIVIDUAL||STEVENS POINT||WI||$1,250|
|HERMAN, DANIEL||INDIVIDUAL||WISCONSIN RAPIDS||WI||$1,200|
|PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF WISCONSIN||NON-INDIVIDUAL||MADISON||WI||$1,000|
|HESS, LAWRENCE E||INDIVIDUAL||SAN DIEGO||CA||$1,000|