Wisconsin Dem Rakes in Money From Corporate-Funded PACs While Raging Against Corporate Money

Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes (D.) / Getty Images
April 23, 2022

Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes this year has raked in thousands from corporation-funded political action committees, according to election finance records, even though he pledged to forgo campaign donations from registered corporate PACs.

Barnes, the state's lieutenant governor, said on April 12 that he hasn't taken "one dime in Corporate PAC $$." But he has accepted at least $15,000 in donations from leadership PACs funded by the Boeing Company PAC, Pfizer Inc. PAC, the Lockheed Martin Corporation Employees' PAC, and other corporate-connected committees—a campaign finance loophole that allows him to benefit from industry cash while still claiming to reject it.

In the first three months of 2022, Barnes accepted donations from at least five leadership PACs that receive corporate funding, including the Nutmeg PAC, the BRIDGE PAC, and the Congressional Black Caucus. During the same time, these groups took in money from corporate PACs linked to Raytheon, Novo Nordisk, Exxon Mobil, and Capital One, among others.

The donations could detract from a key pledge of Barnes's candidacy, as he seeks to portray his campaign as "roots"-driven and contrast himself with Republican senator Ron Johnson, who Barnes claims is beholden to corporate interests. The funding came after Barnes was reported to have taken corporate PAC money during his previous campaigns for state office, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Registered "corporate PACs" are entities connected to a business that are only allowed to raise money from company employees and stockholders. But leadership PACs—which are connected to individual politicians—often accept money from these groups and steer it to other candidates, including ones who have promised to eschew corporate money.

Barnes first announced during his campaign launch last July that he was "not taking donations from corporate PACs," and he has continued to tout this promise as a contrast with Johnson.

"This campaign is [grass]roots," said Barnes on Twitter last month. "We're going to prove you can't buy a Senate seat and that you don't need corporate PAC money to win."

Barnes raised $1.7 million in the first quarter of 2022, lagging behind his two main primary opponents, hedge fund heir Alex Lasry and Wisconsin treasurer Sarah Godlewski, according to Federal Election Commission records. Lasry, who raised $3.9 million, and Godlewski, who raised $2.1 million, both poured a significant amount of their own money into their campaigns. Republican incumbent Johnson raised $5.9 million.

Barnes's weak fundraising numbers suggest he has struggled to bring in donations, even as polling has shown him with an early lead in the Democratic primary.

Democrats are fighting to oust Johnson in what is expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races of this year's midterms.