MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats are moving to distance themselves from officeholders and donors who have been accused of sexual misconduct, but Republicans are holding onto money from a GOP mega-backer who supports embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Amid the recent flurry of sexual misconduct accusations, the scrutiny on Wisconsin politicians who have ties to those facing allegations — whether directly or indirectly — has come into sharper focus roughly a year before the 2018 election.
It’s a routine partisan campaign tactic for the opposing party to bring attention to donations a candidate has received from someone accused of wrongdoing. Sometimes the money is returned, sometimes the candidate holds firm and does nothing, and often the back and forth plays out far from the front lines of the campaign or public consciousness.
For the second time in as many weeks, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin quickly gave away donations she received from someone accused of sexual misconduct. On Wednesday night, Baldwin’s re-election campaign donated $5,350 she had received since 2012 from longtime public radio personality Garrison Keillor to the Bolton Refuge House in Eau Claire, which helps victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The move comes two weeks after Baldwin donated $20,000 she received from fellow Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s political action committee to the Women Veterans Initiative.
Keillor’s contracts with Minnesota Public Radio were terminated this week after he was accused of inappropriate behavior involving a person he worked with. Several women have accused Franken of groping them, and one alleges he forcibly kissed her.
While Baldwin has returned the money tied to Franken, she hasn’t called for him to resign and instead says she wants to see the results of a Senate ethics investigation.
Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce, who is challenging Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined with other Democratic candidates across the country in divesting money he had received from Franken’s PAC.
And the Wisconsin Democratic Party in October donated a $5,000 contribution made by movie executive Harvey Weinstein in 2010 to in-state groups that help women who are survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein, several prominent men in entertainment, politics and journalism have faced accusations as well.
The divesting by Democrats stands in sharp contrast to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker who have been less willing to distance themselves from a prominent backer who is also supporting Moore.
Moore has denied allegations by multiple women that he preyed on them in the 1970s when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
GOP mega-donor Richard Uihlein has given $3.5 million to a group backing Nicholson and also made a $5,400 donation to Nicholson’s campaign. Uihlein, who gives millions to Republicans all across the country, has also donated $100,000 to a super PAC helping Moore’s Alabama Senate campaign.
Democrats have been hammering Nicholson on the connection to Moore through Uihlein, even though Nicholson has said if he were a voter in Alabama he would want Moore to step aside. Nicholson has said that he’s “honored and humbled” to have Uihlein’s support. Nicholson’s two campaign advisers also recently left, with plans to join the Uihlein-backed super PAC, furthering the ties between the two.
Nicholson has not returned the money his campaign got or called on the Uihlein-funded super PAC, Solutions for Wisconsin, to take action. Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody downplayed the connection to Uihlein.
“Democrats are living in fantasy-land because our campaign doesn’t control the actions of outside groups and Kevin has forcefully called on Roy Moore to step aside already,” Moody said in an emailed statement.
Democrats and their allies have also called on Walker and other state GOP officeholders to return donations from Uihlein, which none of them have done. Uihlein has given nearly $3 million to Walker or groups backing him and more than $1 million to the Wisconsin Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association.
Walker’s campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment.
“Richard Uihlein is underwriting a campaign to try to elect an accused pedophile to the United States Senate,” said Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now. “Anyone associated with him and his campaign cash should be appalled and should immediately give the money back.”
It’s a stretch to compare donations directly from people facing accusations of wrongdoing and someone like Uihlein who is a contributor to them, said Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.
“If that’s the standard, there’s a lot of money that’s going to have to be given back,” Burden said.