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Outside Spending Jumps for Local Candidates Who Cast Doubt on 2020 Election

Of 6 candid­ates in recent Wisconsin races suppor­ted by messaging cast­ing doubt on the 2020 elec­tion, 5 won office.

Of 6 candid­ates in recent Wisconsin races suppor­ted by messaging cast­ing doubt on the 2020 elec­tion, 5 won office.

Last Tues­day’s local elec­tions in and around Green Bay, Wiscon­sin, were the focus of big spend­ing by outside groups push­ing narrat­ives around elec­tion denial — claims that the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was so marred by fraud that it came to the wrong result. Some of the messages being peddled accused local offi­cials of miscon­duct in the elec­tion, while others implied that their preferred candid­ate must be elec­ted to preserve demo­cracy. Of the six candid­ates suppor­ted by messaging cast­ing doubt on the last elec­tion, five won office, and three of those unseated incum­bents.

This year, races for posi­tions with a role in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion have been a focus of unpre­ced­en­ted national atten­tion amid a disin­form­a­tion campaign attempt­ing to cast doubt on the result in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Much of the focus has been at the state level, where the Bren­nan Center has found that fundrais­ing for secret­ary of state candid­ates has skyrock­eted. But local offi­cials also play crucial roles running our elec­tions, and large expendit­ures in Green Bay are a sign that local elec­tions every­where could be at risk from attacks harm­ful to voters’ trust in our demo­cracy.

Green Bay has been a target of elec­tion denial, mostly focused on the city’s accept­ance of char­it­able dona­tions from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded largely by Face­book CEO Mark Zuck­er­berg. CTCL provided funds to thou­sands of elec­tion agen­cies across 49 states, award­ing funds on a nonpar­tisan basis. Green Bay used the money to pay poll work­ers and for other admin­is­tra­tion expenses. Debunked conspir­acy theor­ies claim that the funds amoun­ted to a bribe to swing the elec­tion for Joe Biden.

Restor­a­tion PAC, based in Illinois, reportedly spent more than $78,000 on brochures and ad buys support­ing candid­ates for Green Bay City Coun­cil and its county, Brown County. The TV spot begins: “Free and fair elec­tions are the Wiscon­sin way, but Green Bay lead­ers changed all that. They let partisan outsiders take control of the 2020 elec­tion oper­a­tions.”

Restor­a­tion PAC gets the lion’s share of its fund­ing from Richard Uihlein, a ship­ping supplies magnate who gave the group $7.5 million in 2021. Uihlein has suppor­ted groups involved in chal­len­ging the elec­tion result, in addi­tion to making maximum legal dona­tions to elec­tion deni­al­ist candid­ates in secret­ary of state races in Geor­gia and Nevada.

On the oppos­ite side of the issue, a Wash­ing­ton, DC, group called Open Demo­cracy PAC spent more than $224,000 on digital ads support­ing candid­ates in Green Bay and nearby communit­ies. All five of the candid­ates Open Demo­cracy PAC boos­ted were opposed by Restor­a­tion PAC. Open Demo­cracy’s campaign included Face­book ads with a video claim­ing that “our demo­cracy is as stake” and asked the viewer to “do your part to keep Wiscon­sin elec­tions fair, secure, and access­ible” by voting for the candid­ate. Open Demo­cracy was formed in 2021 and seeded with $150,000 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money group.

Although it’s unclear how much either group’s spend­ing influ­enced voters, Restor­a­tion PAC had the better record on elec­tion night. Only one of Open Demo­cracy’s favored candid­ates won, while five of the candid­ates Restor­a­tion PAC suppor­ted won — of those, two unseated incum­bents on the Green Bay City Coun­cil and one beat a Brown County Board incum­bent.

The Demo­cratic Party of Wiscon­sin also weighed in with messaging focused on elec­tion denial claims. It bought Face­book ads oppos­ing one of the Green Bay City Coun­cil candid­ates. The ads said, “She organ­ized the Green Bay Janu­ary 6 Stop the Steal rally to under­mine confid­ence in our elec­tions. She’s contin­ued to push elec­tion conspir­acy theor­ies.” The image labels the candid­ate “a threat to our demo­cracy.” She went on to win the race.

Green Bay candid­ates — even some who were suppor­ted by these expendit­ures — opposed outside groups’ activ­ity in their elec­tions, which are nonpar­tisan. Seven of twenty-one city coun­cil candid­ates signed a pledge to not accept outside money in their campaigns. The sense that candid­ates lost messaging control to national groups is high­lighted by the fact that some candid­ates were over­whelm­ingly outspent by outside interests. For example, Open Demo­cracy reportedly spent $30,000 in support of Aron Obrecht, whose campaign spent just $1,055 as of March 25 accord­ing to a campaign finance filing. Obrecht said he didn’t know why the group boos­ted him, spec­u­lat­ing, “If I were to guess, they’re trying to inter­fere with elec­tions.”

Big spend­ing by out-of-state groups warn­ing of exist­en­tial threats to our demo­cracy is a new phenomenon in Green Bay. But it’s consist­ent with the trend of candid­ates center­ing their campaigns around elec­tion denial for state-level elec­tion offi­cial posi­tions across the coun­try, as well as in local races in Geor­gia and Texas.

Even with only early data for this elec­tion cycle, it is clear there is an explo­sion in out-of-state dona­tions to secret­ary of state candid­ates in battle­grounds. And outside spend­ing from super PACs and dark money groups is sure to play a big role this year. How much this barrage of messages about elec­tion denial affects the public’s trust in our demo­cracy remains to be seen.