Money & Politics: Cheeseheads frugal in prez race

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Frank Burgess, the head of an investment management firm in Madison, says he’s “solidly behind (Barack) Obama, in every sense,” including his donations to the president’s re-election campaign. He would have liked to have given even more. In fact, he tried to.

In August, Burgess gave $5,000 to Obama for America, on top of the $2,500 he’d given in April. That put him over the $5,000 per-cycle limit for individuals, so $2,500 was returned. Burgess is still a bit sore about it, saying “it’s not very helpful” that his donations are restricted while those made to some outside groups are not.

ACCORDING TO the Federal Election Commission, Wisconsin individuals and groups have given $8.9 million to the various presidential candidates, through Oct. 17. Of this amount, $4.4 million has gone to Obama and $3.8 million to GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Compared with the whole nation, these donations affirm the state’s frugality. Wisconsin has 1.8 percent of the nation’s population, but accounts for just .8 percent of the nearly $1.2 billion that has flowed to presidential contenders. Massachusetts, in contrast, makes up 2.1 percent of the nation but has given $32.4 million, or 2.8 percent of the total.

More than $2 billion has poured into the race from all sources. Most can be traced to individual donors.

OPEN SECRETS, a website run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, lists more than 850 Badger State donations of $2,500 or more. These include Bradley Foundation president Michael Grebe ($2,500 to Romney), former GOP state senator Pam Galloway ($2,500, Romney), former Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen ($2,500, Obama), former U.S. Senate candidate Russ Darrow ($5,000, Romney), and both the Ho-Chunk Nation and Oneida Tribe ($5,000 each, Obama).

Some of these donors have also given large sums to the Republican National Committee or its Democratic counterpart, DNC Services Corp. The Washington Post has tallied that the RNC has raised $351 million, and the DNC $267 million, for the presidential race.

Wisconsin residents have given $4 million to the RNC over the past two years, according to Open Secrets. There were 50 donations of $30,800, the annual maximum, including one from Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks (who also gave $520,500 to help Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survive his recall election) and the Forest County Potawatomi.

MEANWHILE, Wisconsinites have given the DNC about $1 million. This includes two $30,800 donations from the Oneida (for 2011 and 2012), and one each from the Ho-Chunk and Kagen. The Forest County Potawatomi gave the DNC $20,800.

So-called super PACs have dumped nearly $300 million into the presidential race, a Wall Street Journal tracker shows. But only about $1 million in super PAC donations trace to Wisconsin, according to Open Secrets. And the state’s biggest donor doesn’t even live in Wisconsin.

The $350,000 from Richard Uihlein to FreedomWorks for America, a super PAC launched in 2011, is listed as coming from Wisconsin. That’s where his company, Uline, is based. He actually lives in Illinois, from which he’s given more than $1 million to other super PACs over the past two years.

FreedomWorks has spent $14 million during the current two-year election cycle, including more than $550,000 to oppose Obama.

UIHLEIN, IN a phone interview, says the groups he backs share his conservative principles: limited government, school choice, energy independence. “It’s not like these are secret organizations,” he says. “They’re right out there on the forefront, doing a lot of work.”

Most of this spending, of course, is coming out on TV screens, like the $22 million in presidential election ads the Washington Post says have already aired in Wisconsin.

“That’s the time you want to own a TV station,” Uihlein muses. “Somebody is doing well in this economy.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

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