By Clay Barbour, The Wisconsin State Journal
Oct. 14–A rarely-talked-about exception in the state’s campaign finance laws would let donors give unlimited cash to help Gov. Scott Walker beat back a possible recall election.
State law allows individuals to donate no more than $10,000 during regular elections to a gubernatorial candidate. But in the once-rare case of a recall election, Wisconsin removes the individual cap on donations to incumbents for a period stretching from the start of the petition drive to the day the state authorizes an election.
Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney said the reason for the quirk is that, unlike normal elections, recalls pop up without much warning and leave elected officials with little time to prepare.
Historically this has not been much of an issue. Before this year, the state dealt with only a handful of recall elections, none as large as the effort against Walker could be.
Election watchdogs are predicting this recall, if it goes to an election, could shatter state campaign fundraising numbers.
“It’s hard to imagine that it won’t be more than the $44 million spent this summer for the nine Senate recalls,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “How much more, I don’t know. But it will be big.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin unveiled plans earlier this week to begin the recall effort Nov. 15, and the petitions would be due by Jan. 17. GAB has to review the signatures to make sure they are valid and deal with challenges before it can officially call for an election, the earliest of which is expected to be March. Then there is a likelihood of court challenges.
All of that prolongs the period in which Walker can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. Magney said it is entirely possible that period could stretch well into spring of 2012. And even then, state law allows Walker to continue collecting unlimited cash to pay off any campaign debt incurred during the accepted period.
McCabe’s organization, a government watchdog group, analyzed campaign funds from this summer’s recall elections and used those numbers to gauge expectations for the Walker recall.
Normally individual donations to state Senate candidates are limited to $1,000. But this summer, recall-targeted senators received 368 contributions of more than $1,000. McCabe said those donations averaged nearly $2,900 and totaled almost $1.1 million — nearly $700,000 more than they would have under normal limits.
“And remember, those senators were not the real targets,” McCabe said. “They were essentially proxies for the governor.”
The $44 million spent for the summer recalls was more than the $37 million spent during the 2010 gubernatorial election. Most of the recall election money came from third-party and issue groups, which spent four times as much as the actual candidates in those elections.
Public officials in Wisconsin are not eligible for recall until they have served at least one year of their current term in office. Walker was inaugurated on Jan. 3, 2011, meaning recall petitions cannot be filed until Jan. 3, 2012. The number of signatures needed to trigger his recall is 540,208, or one-quarter of the 2,160,832 votes cast in his November 2010 election.
The heavy lifting will be handled by organizations like United Wisconsin, which was formed in the past year in opposition to the governor’s policies. United Wisconsin’s website says the political action committee already has more than 200,000 people pledging to sign the recall petition.
(c)2011 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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