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'America Votes' spent nearly $1 million on Wisconsin recall

Group next aims to back Colorado senators facing recall after pro-gun control vote

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America Votes, a national liberal nonprofit group with significant union funding, made the 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin recall elections a top priority, providing a major cash infusion to a handful of groups that helped organize the efforts.

Documents show the nonprofit gave a combined $940,000 to four organizations that tried to boot Republican Gov. Scott Walker and several other GOP lawmakers out of office.

America Votes, which aims “to coordinate and promote progressive issues,” raised $11.1 million from July 2011 through June 2012 and spent $9.6 million, according to an IRS filing obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Of the total, $725,400 went to the Greater Wisconsin Committee and $150,000 went to We Are Wisconsin, a nonprofit launched shortly after Walker announced his controversial legislation that restricted collective bargaining.

America Votes also gave nearly $45,000 to Citizen Action of Wisconsin and $20,000 to Wisconsin Progress.

America Votes is a “social welfare” nonprofit meaning it doesn’t have to say where it gets its money from, but it does have to say where it’s going.

We Are Wisconsin ultimately spent more than $14 million on both rounds of recall elections, while Greater Wisconsin — which has a political and a nonprofit arm — dished out nearly $11 million.

Those two groups spent more on the recalls than any other independent organization, according the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

America Votes spokesman John Neurohr said the group was enlisted as the “coordinating entity” in Wisconsin to ensure the bevy of progressive organizations active in the recalls were not “doubling up on efforts” and wasting valuable resources.

Walker won his election, but the Democrats briefly gained control of the state Senate following the recalls.

In total, America Votes donated more than $1.6 million to 14 separate liberal-leaning social welfare nonprofits and an additional $670,000 to two so-called “527” organizations during its fiscal year, documents show.

Among the other beneficiaries were the three most active Democratic-aligned nonprofits in the 2012 federal elections — the League of Conservation Voters ($141,000), Patriot Majority USA ($45,000) and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund ($25,000).

Additional major contributions include $480,000 to Progress Now Minnesota, $417,500 to the Colorado-based Bull Moose Sportsmen and $105,000 to WIN Minnesota.

Progress Now Minnesota and WIN Minnesota both advocate for liberal policies, while the Bull Moose Sportsmen promote conservation and hunters’ rights.

Notably, 52 percent of the money America Votes brought in during this period came from just 10 donors, a Center for Public Integrity analysis found. Documents show the two largest donations were $1.56 million and $1 million, though the donors are not identified.

The group says it “does not accept contributions earmarked for a specific political purpose” meaning it is not required by the Federal Election Commission to name its donors.

The group next turns its attention to Colorado, according to Neuroh, where Democratic Sens. Angela Giron and John Morse are facing a recall election for supporting a gun control measure.

Neuroh said America Votes is also surveying the fallout over the U.S. Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision, which has led to lawmakers in a number of states seeking to enact stricter voter eligibility requirements.

He stressed that America Votes will continue to focus on a ground game — such as knocking on doors and making phone calls — over television advertisements.

“That’s the best bang for the buck for us,” Neuroh said.

The only independent expenditures — spending in support of a candidate that is required to be reported to the FEC — that America Votes funded in the 2012 federal elections were $47,000 worth of phone calls in support of President Barack Obama and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

Its super PAC spent $84,000 on canvassing and mailers.

The group backed Obama and Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford, who won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November and opposed Colorado GOP congressional candidate Joe Coors, who failed to unseat incumbent Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.

America Votes was originally formed by a group of liberal political operatives, including EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm, former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope and Harold Ickes, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

It first registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 committee during the 2004 election cycle. The 501(c)(4), social welfare nonprofit arm launched in 2009.

Greg Speed, a former Democratic Congressional Committee official, currently serves as the group’s executive director, while former Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Chairwoman Joan Fitz-Gerald is president.

Aside from its national headquarters in Washington, D.C., America Votes has offices in 11 different states. It has a cozy relationship with organized labor and unions have been a major source of funding for the group, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of filings with the Department of Labor.

Ten major labor groups combined to give America Votes more than $1.6 million during the unions' 2012 fiscal years, including $810,000 from the American Federation of State, Municipal, County Employees (AFSCME) and $376,000 from the National Education Association.

For its part, the AFL-CIO gave America Votes about $190,000 during its 2012 fiscal year and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) contributed $154,000.

Other union financial backers include the United Auto Workers ($75,000); the United Food and Commercial Workers ($50,000); the Illinois-based regional arm of the Laborers International Union of North America ($10,000); the Milwaukee, Wis., chapter of LiUNA ($10,000); the International Association of Fire Fighters ($10,000); and the American Federation of Teachers ($5,000).

Michael Beckel and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.