By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
Koch Industries, Native American tribes and the owners of Kwik Trip and Uline are big donors and spenders in the special election race for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District next week.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, 62, from Minocqua, faces off against Democrat Tricia Zunker, 39, a law professor and the president of the Wausau School Board.
Tiffany is a dam tender first elected to the Assembly in 2010. He has served in the state Senate since 2012.
Zunker, also a Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court justice, would be Wisconsin’s first Native American elected to Congress. She would also be the first woman to represent the state’s 7th Congressional District, which covers much of northern Wisconsin.
Big name Democrat Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Corey Booker have endorsed Zunker. Tiffany has received perhaps the biggest endorsement of all, from President Donald Trump. By tweet, of course.
Neither candidate answered The Badger Project’s requests for an interview.
The retirement of Republican Congressman Sean Duffy in September opened the seat. But next week’s winner will serve only the remainder of Duffy’s term, which ends in January. Both candidates say they will run in November for the full term.
A representative of the U.S. Congress earns an annual salary of $174,000. A Wisconsin state senator earns an annual salary of $52,999.
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CANDIDATES
Tiffany had raised about $1.4 million and spent about $1.1 million through April 22, according to the final campaign finance data report due before the election. That’s left him with about $230,000 on hand entering the final weeks of the special election campaign, according to data from the Federal Elections Commission.
Unlike Zunker, who faced minimal opposition, Tiffany had to beat back a well-funded challenger, Army veteran Jason Church, in the February primary election.
Zunker had raised about $453,000 as of April 22, and spent about $328,000. That’s left her with about $125,000 heading into the stretch run of the campaign.
Candidates can and will continue to raise funds after April 22, of course, but a full report on that data isn’t due to the FEC until June.
Some of Tiffany’s top donors include frequent conservative donors like Dick and Liz Uihlein, owners of the massive shipping supplies company Uline, who gave a total of $11,200. That’s the maximum allowable for two people for the primary and special elections. Diane Hendricks, the billionaire owner of ABC Supply who lives in the Beloit area, also gave the maximum $5,600. Donald and LaVonne Zietlow, owners of Kwik Trip, had given a total of $8,400 as of April 22, and John Menard Jr., owner of Menards, has given $2,800.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, which represents the state’s bars, has given Tiffany’s campaign $5,600, while the political action committees for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, National Association of Realtors, American Bankers Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, and National Automobile Dealers each have given $5,000.
The PAC for Koch Industries gave Tiffany $9,000, nearly the maximum.
On the Democratic side, Native American tribes have donated heavily to Zunker.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington state, and the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, also in California, each gave $5,600. The Oneida Nation, located next to Green Bay, has given $2,800.
The United Steelworks Political Action Fund gave Zunker $5,000, and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin donated more than $4,500 to her campaign.
Lynde Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz Beer fortune and a cousin of Dick Uihlein, gave the maximum $5,600. The Milwaukee-based Lynde Uihlein is a robust liberal donor.
Karla Jurvetson, a California physician and another heavy liberal donor, also donated the maximum $5,600 to Zunker.
By federal law, a single person can give $2,800 per election, so Tiffany and Zunker can each collect $5,600 per individual donor for the primary and special elections. They can then collect another $5,600 from those individuals for the upcoming primary and general election in November.
The same rules hold for PACs, which are limited to either $2,800 or $5,000 per election, depending on whether the PAC supports one candidate or multiple, respectively.
INDEPENDENT SPENDING FROM SUPER PACs
Independent spending groups, including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity PAC and the influential Club for Growth, have spent more than $1.25 million in support of Tiffany through TV and radio commercials and campaign material sent through the mail, among other platforms.
The billionaire Uihlein couple live in the Chicago area and have a home in the district, in Manitowish Waters, where they own businesses and property and have spent lavishly on public projects.
Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a coalition of labor, environment, senior citizen and other groups, has spent about $45,000 supporting Zunker, according to Open Secrets, a non-profit, nonpartisan political research group based in Washington, D.C.
Americans for Security, a conservative Super PAC which supported Tiffany’s Republican challenger, spent about $65,000 to attack him with broadcast ads and mailers during the primary.
These independent groups, called Super PACs, can raise unlimited amounts of money, from people, unions and corporations, and then spend it, but are prohibited from coordinating with candidates. Super PACs often do not have to reveal their donors. The landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. FEC allowed for much of these changes to campaign finance law.
The 7th Congressional District covers most of the northern part of the state, except for much of the northeastern corner. Democrat Dave Obey held the seat for more than four decades before retiring in 2010. Duffy, an Ashland County District Attorney who had been a cast member on MTV shows like The Real World and Road Rules before becoming a prosecutor, then won the seat.
After winning majorities in the state legislature in 2010, Republicans redrew the 7th Congressional District in 2011 to make it easier for them to hold, said Ed Miller, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point who has been involved with the redistricting process in the state.
A tendril from the 7th now creeps down into central Wisconsin to grab more rural, right-leaning votes. The state GOP also threw more left-leaning places, including the college town of Stevens Point, into the 3rd Congressional District to the west. Democrat Ron Kind represents the 3rd, which is sometimes called the Mississippi River District, Miller said, because it runs along the waterway from the Twin Cities all the way to the Illinois border.
“But I can’t see the Mississippi from my house,” joked Miller, who lives in Stevens Point, more than 100 miles from the river.
Miller guessed that Republicans would hold the seat, but noted that Zunker’s base in her relatively populous hometown of Wausau and her popularity among native people should help her run stronger than previous Democrats.
While Donald Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point in the 2016 Presidential Election, he won the 7th Congressional District by more than 20, according to the Associated Press.
Duffy also easily won reelection in the district in 2016, capturing more than 60 percent of the vote against a Democratic challenger. In announcing his retirement last year, he cited family and the health complications of their unborn baby.
“With much prayer, I have decided that this is the right time for me to take a break from public service in order to be the support my wife, baby and family need right now,” he wrote in an August Facebook post.
Since his retirement, Duffy has taken the path of many retired legislators, becoming a lobbyist. Under House rules, Duffy cannot lobby Congress for one year following his retirement, but he can lobby the White House. The firm he joined, BGR Group, has corporate clients including Comcast and Pfizer, as well as the governments of Bahrain, Bangladesh, India and South Korea, according to Politico.
Peter Cameron is the managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-funded investigative journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wirtanen Family Fund through the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.