How Wisconsin Super PACs stay in the shadows to influence elections

Story & Illustration by Tamia Fowlkes

When Kirk Bangstad plastered a nearly 32-square-foot Biden-Harris sign to the exterior wall of his Oneida County business in September 2020, he had no idea that he had taken his first steps toward becoming one of the most prominent political action organizations in the state of Wisconsin.

Now, donors have contributed more than $375,000 under Minocqua Brewing Company’s name and a slogan that touts “dark money for good.”

As a political science student and an avid reader of political news, I had some questions: What is dark money in politics, and what does it look like in Wisconsin? And how can it be good?

I thought the answer would be far easier to find than it proved to be. Here’s what I found. 

Part I: What is “dark money?”

In 0.53 seconds, my Google search for “dark money” produces more than 2 million results of websites, videos, articles and images that have some relationship to dark money. Definitions offered by Wikipedia to describe the concept include “political spending by nonprofit organizations” and organizations that “can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions.”

What remained unclear, despite the clarifying distinctions, was how this issue impacted voters on a daily basis and played a role in shaping their political futures. For many Wisconsin voters, finding tangible examples of how dark money affects the messages we hear is just as perplexing as understanding its impact.

To test my theory, I decided to pose the question on my Instagram story to an audience of teens, 20-somethings and family friends who I have met throughout my years of school and socializing and posed a simple question: What is dark money?

And on to my Instagram story it went.

The responses were a variety of questions and vague answers. “First word that comes to mind: Grimey,” one response says. “Money that is given to political figures to do something bad,” another person says.  

Among the frequent and expected confusion, one response from a former classmate caught my eye.

 “Dark money is an undemocratic political system where money matters more than people and their votes!” 

That, of course, was the answer I was waiting for. One person who was able to point out a growing concern for many: the realization that someone else’s money could make a greater difference than their vote.

As I dug in more, I learned dark money has the potential to cross our path at any time and on every platform. Whether it be Facebook or Instagram, in your mailbox or on your television screen, messages fueled by organizations with a clear intention to sway political perspectives are prominent and commonplace in our everyday activities — even in years between elections like now in 2021.

That, of course, was the answer I was waiting for. One person who was able to point out a growing concern for many: the realization that someone else’s money could make a greater difference than their vote.

Part II: Dark Money In The Dark

In her book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” journalist Jane Mayer details decades of right-wing campaign fundraising and spending that plagued Wisconsin’s democratic system and redefined the state’s understanding of dark money.

During her visit to UW–Madison in September, Mayer detailed her experiences investigating Charles and David Koch, the owners of the largest private company in the nation, and the rapid growth of their political influence. 

“When they coached American politics, they looked at it as engineers, which I think gave them a great advantage,” Mayer said during a Cap Times Idea Fest panel with Washington Post journalist David Maraniss.

Mayer spoke about efforts led by the brothers preceding the 2012 presidential election, detailing a dinner they hosted that year with major conservative leaders from across the country and some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. At the party, Charles Koch implored guests to join a collection of more than 30 private donors who had contributed more than $1 million each to determine “the life or death of this country.”

According to research by the Brennan Center for Justice, powerful political action committees and organizations have poured more than $1 billion into federal elections since 2010, focusing their efforts on highly competitive races locally and nationwide.

The Koch brothers and the donors who would soon join their ranks looked at the political structure systemically and searched for pressure points where they could tamper and play the odds of beating them, Mayer added. They sought to find a way where even the smallest fringe minority could take over American politics.

The most major pressure points proved to be growing political division and control over money.

“When they coached American politics, they looked at it as engineers, which I think gave them a great advantage.”

— Jane Mayer

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, has been a champion for transparency in campaign finance for decades. Leading the small team at Common Cause Wisconsin, Heck has seen firsthand the dramatic shifts that Wisconsin campaign finance policy has taken over the past 20 years. The change is largely due to a pivot in the mindset of business owners, who in the past directly contributed to political campaigns.

Now, more business owners choose to put money into an issue ad group or nonprofit organization, Heck says. By taking that step in today’s political landscape, there are no limits on the amount of money someone can contribute, and their commitment to a particular candidate remains a secret.

The reason why this donation privacy exists is because dark money organizations, typically referred to as “social welfare organizations” and 501(c)(4)s, have an IRS tax code designation that requires that they spend no more than 50% of their money on politics.

A variety of court decisions over the past 20 years have influenced the mechanisms that independent organizations can use to support political candidates.

These include the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed by Congress in 2002 and the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, issued in 2010. 

According to Heck, the Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, launched a new era in politics that has resulted in less disclosure and greater coordination between candidates in major statewide elections like Wisconsin Supreme Court races in 2010 and 2020.  

“With outside groups and political parties, we now have some of the most expensive, partisan, nasty races in the state at the state Supreme Court level,” Heck says, adding that a lack of rules in Wisconsin requiring justices to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors compounds the problem.

As regulations continue to diminish, seeking accountability grows to be an increasingly challenging obstacle.

“I’m an optimist. Some people say I’m a fool or misguided, but nevertheless, I’ve got to keep fighting for it,” Heck says.

“I’m an optimist. Some people say I’m a fool or misguided, but nevertheless, I’ve got to keep fighting for it.”

— Jay Heck

Part III: Dark Money for Good?

“Dark money for good” is a phrase that comes up several times in my interview with Minocqua Brewing Company owner Kirk Bangstad.

Among political scientists and experts, openly claiming this mantle is rare.

“The big problem is accountability, because with 501(c)(4)s you don’t know who’s donating the money and that’s why it’s called dark money,” says UW–Madison political science professor David Canon. “You could have an organization that’s trying to influence some legislative policy and not know that some big donor in the state of Wisconsin is spending a million dollars to try to influence a bill.”

In Bangstad’s case, The Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC, an independent expenditure-only Super PAC, was created to challenge major conservative spending initiatives in the state and provide a stronger voice for the northern population’s progressive ideals.

As an independent expenditure organization, the PAC may receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, labor unions and other political action committees for political activities in the state so long as the funds do not directly support a specific candidate.

The effort started when the company was trying to sell its last few barrels of blonde ale before its quickly-approaching expiration date and Bangstad decided it was time for a rebrand. A flash sale of “progressive beer” quickly followed.

Gaining nationwide attention with its celebratory “Biden Beer,” the company took advantage of its newfound visibility to pivot its efforts on progressive policy goals in the state by contributing 5% of their profits to the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC in addition to an influx of online donations from people across the country who supported Bangstad’s efforts.

In just one example of the organization’s ability to exercise its newly garnered political power, the Super PAC filed a collection of lawsuits against school boards across the state that have resisted parent demands for increased COVID-19 precautions and student safety.

The action resulted in a Federal Elections Commission complaint by the Republican Party of Wisconsin stating that the organization failed to report transfers of donations and disclosure of donors in campaign finance reports.

Bangstad, who got his start as a political candidate himself, losing his assembly election in November 2020, has grown fond of the newfound ease by which the PAC can influence political change in the state. In his interview, he shared that he had no intentions to run for office again, but says the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC has given him an impact unparalleled to what had been attempted before.  

“Instead of running a political nonprofit where one has to constantly ask for donations to exist, The Minocqua Brewing Company is able to sell a product that people want and fund our political activism through those profits,” Bangstad says.