Outside Money in GOP Primaries Reveals Growing Power of PACs

In the two weeks leading up to the Wisconsin Republic primary for governor, approximately $3.5 million worth of political advertisements against former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch started popping up statewide.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, the ads funded by the conservative political action committee Club for Growth claimed that Kleefisch had spent her two terms as lieutenant governor using taxpayer money to attend foreign events hosted by the Chinese government, while other ads claimed she was "too weak to lead."

Kleefisch's opponent, Republican business owner Tim Michels, was never directly praised in any of Club for Growth's campaigning, but on August 9 Michels defeated the career politician in the Wisconsin gubernatorial primary vote.

The Wisconsin election is one of several state GOP primaries that have seen a flood of outside money this primary season. And while Super PACs always play a role during an election year, the influence of outside money — together with endorsements from former President Donald Trump — seems to be growing rapidly in the Republican Party.

"One of the things that we're seeing is Super PACs essentially playing a role that the parties used to play," said Dan Birdsong, professor of political science at the University of Dayton. "The party establishment as it is doesn't have the power or resources or the ability to really recruit and choose the candidates that they would prefer."

Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019, was a well-establish Republican who many had considered a front runner after entering the governor's race in September 2021. By contrast, Michels, who didn't enter the race until late April, has focused much of his campaign on being an outsider, as well as being the owner of Wisconsin's largest construction company.

Michels will now face the incumbent Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who is holding a 2.5 percentage-point lead, according to the survey analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com.

Republican Party of Wisconsin Executive Director Mark Jefferson told Newsweek in a statement this week that the Wisconsin GOP made sure not to get involved in the primary election "before voters ever got a chance to weigh in."

"Voters have very little faith in our current political leaders, and Tim Michels brought the appeal of an outsider," Jefferson continued in the statement. "It was that appeal and his message of leadership that will carry Tim Michels to the governor's office in Wisconsin in November, not the amount of special interest money liberal groups pour in to support his opponent who has failed our state at every turn."

Michels Host Primary Election Night Rally
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels greets guests with his wife, Barbara, at an election-night rally on August 9 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Michels, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won the Republican nomination against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Birdsong told Newsweek that in some races the money from Super PACs, along with endorsements from former President Trump, appear to be reshaping the Republican Party in its own image of conservatism, establishing the boxes a candidate needs to check in order to succeed in and for the GOP.

Birdsong also noted the power of the Club for Growth super PAC, which has influenced several GOP primary races this year by endorsing candidates that support their limited government and economic freedom policies, either by giving money directly to the candidate's campaign fund or by funding negative campaigns against their opponents.

According to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in U.S. politics, Club for Growth ranks No. 1 in outside spending in 2022, having poured out over $53 million in this election cycle — more than double the $22 million it spent in the last midterm election in 2018.

Of the total spent, the group has put more than 53%, or $28 million, toward advertising targeting Republican candidates in primary elections, similar to the ones used in Wisconsin to target an established politician like Kleefisch.

Another example of Club for Growth's influence this year was in North Carolina's state primary in early May, where together with the School Freedom Fund PAC the groups spent over $12 million in advertising to help Representative Ted Budd win the Republican nomination for Senate.

According to a release from Club for Growth, the campaigning involved both highlighting Trump's endorsement of Budd while also campaigning against former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. The release also claimed that prior to Club for Growth stepping into the race, polling data showed Budd trailing McCrory.

"These super PACs have an ability to dictate or at least construct what it means to be conservative today," Birdsong said, "which is not really the same as what it meant to be conservative 20 years ago."

While the Club for Growth's campaigns have typically aligned with former President Trump — it supported his 2020 reelection campaign — the PAC has moved away from Trump's endorsements this year, a development that Birdsong suggested could serve to further fraction the GOP.

One example of such a split occurred in the Ohio primary race in May, in which Club for Growth endorsed former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel for the open Senate seat. Trump, however, gave his endorsement to conservative outsider JD Vance, putting the two forces to the test. Vance won the primary.

In many of these match-ups, a Trump-endorsed candidate performs better than those backed by powerhouse PACs like Club for Growth, raising the question of the extent to which outside money will shape, or even control, the future of the GOP.

"When we focus on Trump, it tends to be through his endorsements and not so much money," Birdsong said. "So it's really assuming that he can wield power from doing an event or a couple of events to kind of push that [candidate] over the line so to speak, rather than money that can get ads on the airways to either attack or support [candidates]."