In the weeks since Gov. Scott Walker (R) abandoned his bid for a presidency, the Republicans who help him run Wisconsin have been on a tear. Thanks to creative post-2010 redistricting and a strong 2014 election win, Republicans control enough of the legislature in Madison to push through legislation that had been stymied by dissent — or negative media attention.
Yesterday, the minority Democrats boycotted a vote on some of that legislation, a bill that would end some campaign contribution limits and allow candidates to coordinate with "issue" organizations. The caps on individual donations to state legislative and constitutional offices would be doubled; unlimited funds would be allowed to flow to campaign committees, even if the money came from the candidates themselves.
Democrats, who have fought in vain to slow down conservative legislation in the past, were shocked at the speed of this bill. "It was always moving, but it kind of hit an oil slick this month," state Rep. Mandela Barnes said in an interview. "It sped up and got out of control."
This bill is moving in tandem with similarly unstoppable efforts to change the Government Accountability Board from a nonpartisan watchdog to a bipartisan one, and to reform the sort of "John Doe" investigations that dogged Walker before and during his presidential bid. Wisconsin Republicans have said that GAB reform is necessary; Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called it a "failed experiment," saying it allowed purportedly nonpartisan officials to work against enemies.
"We thought it could potentially take partisanship and politics out of the process," Vos said in a TV interview. "We took out a piece of human nature, that everyone has a partisan leaning."
But as Common Cause Wisconsin's Jay Heck has pointed out, the Republican replacement for the GAB — two panels, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — mirrors the structure of the Federal Election Commission, whose toothlessness has effectively rendered it irrelevant.
The campaign money reforms have spurred more Democratic angst, best captured by the reporting of the Madison Capital Times's Jessie Opoien. Republicans have defended the unshackling of "issue" groups by describing them as some kind of force bigger than politics.
"We’re following the lead of the courts, and we are respecting the First Amendment," Vos told reporters this week. "I think one of the things we need in society is more discussion of issues and less discussion of elections. This is exactly what it’s about."
Ironically, it was a Wisconsin issue group that inspired some of the past decade's most consequential legal changes to campaign finance law. Wisconsin Right to Life wanted to run election-year commercials that urged then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) — who is running next year for his old seat — to stop filibustering conservative justices. When the group was blocked by a TV station, it sued. It eventually won at the Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the decision that exempted issue groups from Feingold's own campaign finance reform regulations.
Democrats, who have no tools available to slow down the legislation, are left arguing that the state does not want it. Barnes, who hopes to amend the changes to delay their implementation past 2016, pointed to the 59 Wisconsin towns that have already passed non-binding referenda against the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision.
"I’ve talked to Republicans who have heartburn about the bill," Barnes said. "But are they gonna vote against it? I don’t think so. The 2016 cycle is going to be a presidential election, and Democrats have traditional outperformed in cycles like that. Governor Walker's approval rating has fallen below 40 percent, and Republicans are going to be tied to him. Is that why we're seeing these bills now? To me, that seems like a conflict of interest."