As the state's fall legislative campaigns enter their final stretch, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is apparently making an effort to clean up its act.
The business lobby - long criticized for harsh and arguably unfair attack ads - is still running unregulated ads that benefit GOP legislative candidates. But, thus far, they've all been positive.
WMC president Jim Haney recently told the Wisconsin State Journal: "If we're going to be perceived as the sleaze carriers in the state, I don't want that, and our members don't want that. If we have to reposition ourselves a bit, we'll do so."
WMC appears to be doing just that.
With Democrats poised to regain control of the state Assembly as well as the Senate, WMC is running virtually identical radio ads touting Republican candidates in five key Assembly contests. The races are for open seats in the 47th, 57th and 91st districts, and for challengers hoping to unseat Democratic incumbents in Districts 49 and 88. Similar TV ads are also running in Districts 49, 88 and 91.
A radio spot for GOP candidate Keith Ripp in the 47th District is typical: "In Wisconsin, we need better jobs and brighter futures, and Keith Ripp knows what it takes to turn our economy around. A strong economy means more money for our schools, and safe neighborhoods for our families. Keith Ripp supports property tax relief for families, farmers and businesses."
And so on.
Such ads are a departure for WMC, which is better known for its spots trashing state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler as "Loophole Louie" or, earlier, portraying Gov. Jim Doyle during his successful 2006 re-election bid in a green, toxic haze to suggest he is a crook.
Officials at WMC didn't return calls requesting comment for this article. Others are not so reticent.
"There's a definite change in tone, at least so far," says Joe Wineke, Wisconsin Democratic Party chair.
Mike McCabe, head of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, agrees. He says of WMC: "They were willing to get down in the gutter in past races, both for Supreme Court and in past state legislative races or other races for statewide office like governor. They have decided to keep it much more positive this time. Whether that's because of blowback they've received from past campaigns from elements of the business community or others, that's something only WMC knows."
WMC has been criticized for years for its unregulated issue ads boosting Republican candidates, often by attacking Democrats. But criticism turned to anger after Michael Gableman became the second WMC-backed state Supreme Court candidate in as many years to win, aided by WMC ads that were widely castigated as unfair and misleading.
Afterward, critics, including the activist group One Wisconsin Now and blogger/former mayor Paul Soglin, stepped up their attacks against WMC. Moreover, a segment of the business community began to criticize the group.
In June, Epic Systems announced that to maintain a stance of "political neutrality" it would stop doing business with WMC members or affiliates. Within a day, David Cullen, chief executive of building contractor J.P. Cullen & Sons, announced he was stepping down from the WMC board. Cullen's firm has the contract for an expansion project of Epic's facilities in Verona.
Then, just before retiring, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley penned an essay for Madison Magazine, declaring the business lobby had been "hijacked by highly partisan, ideologically driven staff." WMC, he charged, "has evolved from being a strategically focused business organization to being a partisan political lobbying organization."
The words clearly stung, and seem to have prompted a change in strategy, if not of heart.
That doesn't mean third-party attack ads are gone. While McCabe says both WMC and the Wisconsin Education Association Council are "notable in the positive tone of their ads" this fall, plenty of others are stepping in to fill the vacuum.
Chief among them are the Coalition for America's Families, which has involved itself in past Wisconsin races, and the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership, a newcomer. Both lean right and have run ads accusing Democratic candidates of wanting to bankrupt taxpayers on health care and help illegal aliens.
On the left, Building a Stronger Wisconsin and the Greater Wisconsin Committee have run attack ads against Republican legislative candidates, also unregulated.
Democratic Party lawyer Mike Maistelman has asked state TV stations to stop running ads from the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership and Coalition for America's Families. His letters say the ads violate a state law against knowingly telling lies about political candidates.
Issue ads, whether positive or negative, differ from candidate ads in one main respect: Instead of telling people how to vote, they urge them to take action - for instance, to call Keith Ripp to "tell him keep fighting for commonsense solutions."
Leaving out the "vote for" language allows these ads to skirt campaign laws that bar direct spending by corporations and require disclosure of donors.
The law forbids outside parties from coordinating their efforts with the candidates' campaigns. But nothing prevents them from working in concert with each other. And that's just what McCabe suspects the various pro-GOP groups have done - divvied up districts around the state in order to spend their dollars most efficiently.
Critics say the real problem with these ads is not that they are frequently unfair but that they are simply unaccountable. The key unanswered question, says Wineke, is, "Who's paying for it?"
In some cases, the money is coming from corporations, which are supposed to be barred from political campaigns under state and federal law.
"These ads are clearly intended to influence voters," says McCabe. "They're clearly intended to push voters toward voting for particular candidates or against particular candidates. It's election campaigning. Whether that election campaigning is more positive or more negative is beside the point. The public deserves to know who's paying for this advertising, who's behind it."
That could happen. In October, members of the new Government Accountability Board voted 5-0, with one absence, to assert the authority to issue new disclosure rules and have asked the board's staff to draft language. The staff's first take on it could come as soon as the body's next meeting.
That will be Nov. 11, one week after Election Day.