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Analysis

Big Outside Spending on Election Denial Floods Local Elections in Battleground States

Around Green Bay, Wisconsin, out-of-state groups used messages questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 elections to try to influence local races that will affect the way the 2024 elections are run.

April 7, 2022
Three stacks of $100 dollar bills
Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty
View the entire Tracking Races for Election Administration Positions series

Tues­day’s local elec­tions in and around Green Bay, Wiscon­sin, were the focus of big spend­ing by outside groups push­ing narrat­ives around elec­tion denial — claims that the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was so marred by fraud that it came to the wrong result. Some of the messages being peddled accused local offi­cials of miscon­duct in the elec­tion, while others implied that their preferred candid­ate must be elec­ted to preserve demo­cracy. Of the six candid­ates suppor­ted by messaging cast­ing doubt on the last elec­tion, five won office, and three of those unseated incum­bents.

This year, races for posi­tions with a role in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion have been a focus of unpre­ced­en­ted national atten­tion amid a disin­form­a­tion campaign attempt­ing to cast doubt on the result in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Much of the focus has been at the state level, where the Bren­nan Center has found that fundrais­ing for secret­ary of state candid­ates has skyrock­eted. But local offi­cials also play crucial roles running our elec­tions, and large expendit­ures in Green Bay are a sign that local elec­tions every­where could be at risk from attacks harm­ful to voters’ trust in our demo­cracy.

Green Bay has been a target of elec­tion denial, mostly focused on the city’s accept­ance of char­it­able dona­tions from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded largely by Face­book CEO Mark Zuck­er­berg. CTCL provided funds to thou­sands of elec­tion agen­cies across 49 states, award­ing funds on a nonpar­tisan basis. Green Bay used the money to pay poll work­ers and for other admin­is­tra­tion expenses. Debunked conspir­acy theor­ies claim that the funds amoun­ted to a bribe to swing the elec­tion for Joe Biden.

Restor­a­tion PAC, based in Illinois, reportedly spent more than $78,000 on brochures and ad buys support­ing candid­ates for Green Bay City Coun­cil and its county, Brown County. The TV spot begins: “Free and fair elec­tions are the Wiscon­sin way, but Green Bay lead­ers changed all that. They let partisan outsiders take control of the 2020 elec­tion oper­a­tions.”

Screenshot of TV ad
TV ad paid for by Restor­a­tion PAC.

Restor­a­tion PAC gets the lion’s share of its fund­ing from Richard Uihlein, a ship­ping supplies magnate who gave the group $7.5 million in 2021. Uihlein has suppor­ted groups involved in chal­len­ging the elec­tion result, in addi­tion to making maximum legal dona­tions to elec­tion deni­al­ist candid­ates in secret­ary of state races in Geor­gia and Nevada.

On the oppos­ite side of the issue, a Wash­ing­ton, DC, group called Open Demo­cracy PAC spent more than $224,000 on digital ads support­ing candid­ates in Green Bay and nearby communit­ies. All five of the candid­ates Open Demo­cracy PAC boos­ted were opposed by Restor­a­tion PAC. Open Demo­cracy’s campaign included Face­book ads with a video claim­ing that “our demo­cracy is as stake” and asked the viewer to “do your part to keep Wiscon­sin elec­tions fair, secure, and access­ible” by voting for the candid­ate. Open Demo­cracy was formed in 2021 and seeded with $150,000 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money group. 

Although it’s unclear how much either group’s spend­ing influ­enced voters, Restor­a­tion PAC had the better record on elec­tion night. Only one of Open Demo­cracy’s favored candid­ates won, while five of the candid­ates Restor­a­tion PAC suppor­ted won — of those, two unseated incum­bents on the Green Bay City Coun­cil and one beat a Brown County Board incum­bent.

Screenshot of TV ad

The Demo­cratic Party of Wiscon­sin also weighed in with messaging focused on elec­tion denial claims. It bought Face­book ads oppos­ing one of the Green Bay City Coun­cil candid­ates. The ads said, “She organ­ized the Green Bay Janu­ary 6 Stop the Steal rally to under­mine confid­ence in our elec­tions. She’s contin­ued to push elec­tion conspir­acy theor­ies.” The image labels the candid­ate “a threat to our demo­cracy.” She went on to win the race.

Green Bay candid­ates — even some who were suppor­ted by these expendit­ures — opposed outside groups’ activ­ity in their elec­tions, which are nonpar­tisan. Seven of twenty-one city coun­cil candid­ates signed a pledge to not accept outside money in their campaigns. The sense that candid­ates lost messaging control to national groups is high­lighted by the fact that some candid­ates were over­whelm­ingly outspent by outside interests. For example, Open Demo­cracy reportedly spent $30,000 in support of Aron Obrecht, whose campaign spent just $1,055 as of March 25 accord­ing to a campaign finance filing. Obrecht said he didn’t know why the group boos­ted him, spec­u­lat­ing, “If I were to guess, they’re trying to inter­fere with elec­tions.” 

Big spend­ing by out-of-state groups warn­ing of exist­en­tial threats to our demo­cracy is a new phenomenon in Green Bay. But it’s consist­ent with the trend of candid­ates center­ing their campaigns around elec­tion denial for state-level elec­tion offi­cial posi­tions across the coun­try, as well as in local races in Geor­gia and Texas

Even with only early data for this elec­tion cycle, it is clear there is an explo­sion in out-of-state dona­tions to secret­ary of state candid­ates in battle­grounds. And outside spend­ing from super PACs and dark money groups is sure to play a big role this year. How much this barrage of messages about elec­tion denial affects the public’s trust in our demo­cracy remains to be seen.