Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Mike and Mary Sue Shannon each gave the maximum contribution to Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign in June 2017.

The same day Walker’s campaign reported the $20,000 donations from the Denver couple — both are UW-Madison graduates, and Mike Shannon went on to found a multibillion dollar private equity firm — the state GOP registered $125,000 donations from each of them. Those donations wouldn’t have been allowed under previous Wisconsin campaign finance laws that were first struck down by the courts and then affirmed by a GOP overhaul of the regulations.

The Denver couple wasn’t alone in taking advantage of the change.

A check of donations found 29 donors since Jan. 1, 2015, who contributed a combined $3.3 million to the state GOP after maxing out to Walker. All but three of those contributions were at least $10,000, and more than half of the $3.3 million came from just three donors: Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks and Illinois business couple Dick and Elizabeth Uihlein.

Wisconsin didn’t previously cap contributions to state parties. But an old restriction limiting donors to an aggregate of $10,000 in contributions to campaigns and committees per year acted as a de facto cap. That annual aggregate limit was thrown out by a federal court in September 2014; and when GOP lawmakers overhauled campaign finance laws a little more than a year later, they didn’t include any restrictions on the size of donations to political parties.

Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which lobbied against the GOP campaign finance bill, said including a cap on donations to political parties of $10,000 would have reflected the intent of the old law. In failing to do so, he said, they made a “mockery” of trying to limit the influence of large donors.

The GOP package also doesn’t restrict how much parties or legislative campaigns can transfer to candidates, meaning the Republican Party could funnel those six-figure donations to Walker. Since Jan. 1, 2015, the party has given the guv $74,664 with the largest donation $10,000.

“By tearing down the ceiling on contributions to parties, they’ve opened the door to super-rich individuals having an inordinate influence on who gets elected here, what laws get passed here, what policies get pursued here. That’s not democracy,” Rothschild said.

Hendricks, who has become a major donor in Wisconsin politics, maxed out to Walker for the cycle in June 2017 and later sent donations of $500,000 to the state GOP later that month and again in April. Before hitting the $20,000 mark to Walker, she gave the party $700,000, pushing her overall contributions to the state GOP to $1.7 million since Jan. 1, 2015.

The Uihleins, meanwhile, maxed out to Walker in 2016. Elizabeth Uihlein gave the party $500,000 after hitting the limit to Walker, while Dick Uihlein contributed $250,000 after maxing out. He gave the party another $200,000 before writing the $20,000 check to Walker, pushing the couple’s total contributions to the party to $950,000.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who spearheaded the rewrite of campaign finance laws, said he didn’t consider a cap on contributions to political parties in co-authoring the bill. The Rochester Republican contended the old system weakened parties, because it encouraged some donors to turn to third-party groups instead.

Those third-party groups don’t disclose their donors, while political parties must. He argued the new system strengthens political parties while adding transparency.

“Why wouldn’t we want more people to give to a political party, which is disclosable, as opposed to a shadowy, union-funded third-party group that just does attack ads?” Vos said.

Walker’s fundraising clip has slowed compared to his 2014 campaign as he went on to win a second term over Dem businesswoman Mary Burke. But in announcing his fundraising totals this year, the Walker campaign has stressed the combined resources of the guv, the state GOP and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. For example, the campaign’s July announcement pointed out the three had more than $8.6 million in the bank to finish June, compared to $8.4 million at the same point in 2014.

Still, that was largely due to the state GOP’s fundraising going from $603,886 over the first six months of 2014 to $2.5 million for the same period this year.

Prompted by the campaign’s focus on their combined fundraising, checked donors who had contributed to all three. First, asked the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to compile a list of donors who had given Walker the maximum of $20,000 for the cycle. It then compared that list to a state database to look for donations to the state GOP and Kleefisch.

Altogether, donors who have maxed out to Walker have given the state GOP and Kleefisch nearly $5.3 million since Jan. 1, 2015.

The donations to Kleefisch included $176,900 from 26 donors after they’d maxed out to Walker; one had $20,000 donations to both reported on the same day.

The search also showed the GOP has built a significant edge over its Dem counterpart via donations of $10,000 or more. Since Jan. 1, 2015, the Republican Party has reported 215 such contributions totaling $8.8 million. The Dem Party, meanwhile, pulled in $5.9 million through 231 such donations of $10,000 or more.

Altogether, the Dem Party has raised $8.9 million since Jan. 1, 2015, compared to $11.9 million hauled in by the state GOP.

Some of the biggest donors to the state GOP, Walker and Kleefisch included:

*Jennifer Pritzker, of TAWANI Enterprises in Chicago; she maxed out to Walker in June 2017 before giving the state GOP $255,500 through donations in October 2017 and August.

*Ted Kellner, of Fiduciary Management in Mequon; he maxed out to Walker in May 2016 before giving $250,000 to the state party between donations in 2017 and 2018. He also gave $500 to Kleefisch before maxing out to Walker.

*Thomas Smith, of Prescott General Partners in Florida; he maxed out to Walker on Dec. 28, 2017. That same day, the state GOP registered a donation of $65,000 from him and received another $100,000 in March 2018.

*Donald Zeitlow, of Kwik Trip in La Crosse; he maxed out to Walker in June 2017. He gave $100,000 to the party after that and another $1,000 before hitting $20,000 to the guv. He also donated $4,700 to Kleefisch before maxing out to Walker. The budget Walker introduced in early 2017 included a provision to no longer apply the state sales tax to pizzas the company makes at a Wisconsin factory and ships to convenience stores. Backers said that change would bring parity to frozen pizza sales for the company since state law didn’t require it to collect the sales tax on those produced by other companies and sold at its convenience stores. In addition to approving the pizza provision, the budget lawmakers finally approved in September that year added a new exemption to cover yogurt the company produces and retails in the same way.

The state GOP did not address a question from on whether it solicits donations from those who have maxed out to Walker, instead saying it is “proud of the work we do in supporting the governor’s efforts to keep moving Wisconsin forward.”

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