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Wisconsin Leak Illustrates Power of Elite Donors

The Supreme Court wrongly assumed unlimited outside spending poses no danger of corruption. The result: a few individuals and companies can buy outsize influence with checks larger than the median American’s income.

September 23, 2016

Last week, a document leak to the Guardian newspaper revealed the extent to which Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was directly involved with raising funds for a supposedly independent group that spent heavily to influence elections in his state. The documents provide overwhelming evidence that the Supreme Court was wrong when it blithely assumed in Citizens United that unlimited outside spending poses no danger of corruption. An elected official who works as hard as Walker did to collect millions of dollars for a group supporting his agenda risks being seen as beholden to those donors rather than the electorate.

But the problem is clearly not unique to Wisconsin. Walker was soliciting funds for a “social welfare” nonprofit called Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG). We know that hundreds of millions of dollars come into elections all over the country through secret spending groups like WCFG, including $300 million in 2012’s federal elections alone. But without a massive leak like last week’s, we never know where the funds come from.

Federal campaign finance data does tell us that many of the donors revealed in the documents from Wisconsin are also active in federal elections. This exclusive club of donors is not necessarily uniquely interested in Wisconsin, rather they seek to influence elections across the nation to further a particular partisan or ideological agenda.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was a key fundraising target for Walker, and he gave WCFG $200,000 in 2012. Adelson and his wife Miriam, who together spent more than anyone on the 2012 elections, recently became the biggest donors of the 2016 cycle when they committed to spend $45 million to help Republican candidates.

Hedge fund titan Paul Singer was the biggest benefactor revealed in the Wisconsin documents. According to a ledger in the documents, Singer gave WCFG a total of $1.4 million from 2011 to 2012. This year, Singer is the fourth biggest political donor in the whole country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He has made more than $18 million in federal contributions, including multi-million-dollar donations to “shadow party” super PACs with ties to Republican leadership in the House and Senate, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund.

The fifth biggest source of political money this cycle, just behind Singer, is the husband-and-wife team Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. In 2012, Richard Uihlein gave $50,000 to WCFG. The couple then spent $5 million on a super PAC supporting Walker’s failed presidential campaign, in addition to many other groups during this election. Elizabeth Uihlein now holds a leadership position on the Trump Victory Committee, raising funds for Donald Trump and Republican Party committees.

Hedge funder Steven Cohen gave WCFG $1 million in 2012. Recently, Cohen and his wife contributed $6 million to a super PAC supporting Chris Christie’s campaign for president, putting the couple in the top 20 donors for this cycle.

Investor Bruce Kovner cut a $50,000 check to WCFG with “501c4 – Walker” written on the memo line. This cycle, he contributed to super PACs supporting the presidential bids of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, and he gave $500,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund.

Oklahoma-based Devon Energy Production Company gave WCFG $50,000 in 2012. Devon is one of the largest corporate donors to the Senate Leadership Fund, having given $750,000 in 2015. Corporations like Devon are prohibited from giving directly to candidates under both Wisconsin and federal law.

The list goes on, but the point is clear. A few individuals and companies have outsize influence in politics just because they can afford to write checks several times larger than the median American’s annual income. Super PAC donations this cycle have already exceeded those of the entire 2012 election, and almost half the money came from just 62 individuals and entities giving more than $3 million each. And without better transparency laws, the public doesn’t know who’s giving and potentially buying government favoritism. The unlimited outside money system created by the Court threatens the American ideal of a democracy open to all.