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Big money backfires in local races

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

One day before the U.S. Supreme Court opened new spigots of campaign cash, well-backed groups seeking to sway elections in two northern Wisconsin counties, Polk and Iron, inadvertently drove home another point: Throwing money into the process can hurt as well as help.

Of the 13 active candidates backed in the April 1 Polk County Board election by a group called Operation Prosperity Inc., just four prevailed. And one of those ran unopposed.

Operation Prosperity supported its slate with a website, Facebook page, yard signs, automated phone calls and mailings. In a pre-election filing, the group reported independent expenditures of more than $15,000.

That’s big money for an election in Polk County, population 44,000. County Clerk Carole Wondra said none of the 28 candidates vying for 15 redrawn board seats filed campaign reports, required when their spending tops $1,000.

So Operation Prosperity invested more than the candidates themselves.

“Citizens were taken aback by this big-spending group,” said Jeff Peterson, an activist in Polk County. “They didn’t like the idea of people trying to buy County Board elections.”

Peterson, a retired schoolteacher and former Polk County Board member, ran an ad in local papers questioning Operation Prosperity’s role, money sources and agenda.

The group’s disclosure report lists about three dozen donors, mostly Polk County residents. One gave $3,000 and three gave $1,000. The campaign committee for state Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, chipped in $5,000.

Operation Prosperity describes itself as “a new grassroots movement” focused on creating a business-friendly environment in Polk County. Sharon Kelly, the group’s president, said she is proud the group ran only positive messages but is disappointed in the results, which she blamed in part on the blowback generated by Peterson and others.

“I think that negative focus on Operation Prosperity did have an effect,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile, people in Iron County were definitely upset by the campaign launched by the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, founded and paid for by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. That included a slick mailing that branded seven County Board challengers “anti-mining radicals.”

Among those thus labeled, recklessly, was Karl Krall, a local assistant fire chief is a prominent supporter of a proposed local iron ore mine. Krall and two other challengers who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity won. Most of the AFP-favored candidates who won were incumbents.

The group did not directly advocate any candidate’s election or defeat, so its outlays were not reported. But Iron County Clerk Mike Saari said it was “absolutely” a lot of money in a county where, like Polk, not a single board candidate hit the $1,000 reporting threshold.

On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate contribution limits on donations to multiple campaigns, a decision that will likely end similar limits in Wisconsin.

That will make it even to spend vast amounts trying to sway electoral outcomes. But the experiences of Polk and Iron counties suggest those big spenders should think twice before wading into an election in ways that the people who vote consider unfair.

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