Madison voters are not unfamiliar with oddly aggressive campaign tactics. Last summer, the Greater Wisconsin Committee mailed literature during the 2012 recall campaign listing the names of recipients' neighbors and their voting histories. And east-siders might recall developer Erik Minton's notorious "Bruno" literature in his 2003 race against former Ald. Brenda Konkel.
"I still have a copy of that Bruno piece," says Democratic Party of Dane County chair Mike Basford with a chuckle. "That was a work of art!"
The same can't be said for a campaign flyer received this week by many residents of Madison's near east side.
"Say no to Marsha Rummel," reads the flyer's headline, referencing the incumbent alder who has represented District 6 on the Common Council since 2007. Tiny type at the bottom indicates the piece is "Approved and paid for by Building a Stronger Wisconsin PAC, Randy Nash Treasurer."
Rummel's opponent, Scott Thornton, disavows any knowledge of the piece.
"My campaign had nothing to do with it," writes Thornton in an email. "I called my opponent last night to express my own concern over it."
Nash did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon. His organization, Building a Stronger Wisconsin, is what Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe calls a "very shadowy organization." The Campaign's interest group database details the political action committee's spending in five state legislature campaigns in 2010, but not much else.
"This is obviously a group operating in the shadows that has avoided becoming known," says McCabe. "We don't know very much about the group. We do know that it's a Democratic Party front group that has backed Democratic candidates in state elections. But there's no evidence of ever weighing in on local elections of any kind."
McCabe calls Building a Stronger Wisconsin's involvement in this race "unusual."
"I'm not aware of one of these statewide groups getting involved in a local election of any kind, much less an aldermanic race," he says. "We've not heard at all anything that would indicate that Building a Stronger Wisconsin has ever done this before. Generally, you just don't see these groups that operate in state elections moving over into local elections."
Basford, who has been involved in several local elections over the past two decades, is similarly confused by the move.
"I don't decry negative campaigning," says Basford. "But there's a right way and a wrong way of doing it. I think this is absolutely a textbook example of the wrong way to do it. This was a ham-handed attempt at a negative piece and they ran it in a district where you really don't want to do it."
With District 6 among the most politically active and progressive leaning areas of the state, Basford believes such a flyer will likely benefit Rummel's campaign.
"It's absolutely backfiring," says Basford, indicating the strong reaction he's seeing online. "They've managed to make Marsha Rummel look like a sympathetic case and the way that her neighbors are having such a visceral reaction to this is astonishing."