What the money tells us in Wisconsin’s 26th Senate District race

Breaking down campaign-finance numbers in the area’s most crucial August 11 primary.

Breaking down campaign-finance numbers in the area’s most crucial August 11 primary.

Partisan politics in Madison’s state legislative districts are usually pretty sleepy: two professional candidates who’ve worked their way up the chain square off in the Democratic primary, and the winner is all but guaranteed the office. For the first time in almost 60 years, there’s an open primary in Madison’s 26th Senate district and seven candidates have thrown their names in to take the prized office. 

This doesn’t normally happen here—an actual race where the candidates have distinct approaches and values, and more than one has a credible shot at winning. What do they actually represent beyond their polished literature and barrage of social media ads? I’ve been following the money throughout this primary cycle, and it offers a compelling window into just how diverse and significant this race is.


Candidates have to file public campaign finance reports detailing their receipts and spending throughout their campaign. Looking through the reports filed through the end of July and pairing that with campaign profiles, we can clear through some of the smoke and get a sense of what’s actually happening.

The 26th District covers most of Madison along the Isthmus, and parts of the surrounding area. State Senator Fred Risser, 93, has held the seat since 1962, but announced his retirement this year with the onset of COVID-19. Nada Elmikashfi, Aisha Moe and William Davis III announced their campaigns with the intention of challenging Risser. But upon his decision to step down, other candidates joined the race: Kelda Roys, John Imes, Brian Benford, and Amani Latimer Burris. There are no Republicans or other party candidates, so the winner of the primary will be seated as Senator for District 26. It’s an interesting time for Madison—both the Senate 26th and Assembly 76th have crowded fields for the first time in living memory. (I am a member of Madison’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which has endorsed Elmikashfi in the race.)

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The Senate 26th election is probably the race this season. It comes down to two very different visions for politics in the city: a political scene dominated by corporate and establishment politicians, or a politics made by a grassroots coalition. It’s the most stark example we’ve seen of this dynamic at the local level, though there were hints of it in the Presidential primary. The question is really going to be which one wins out: wealthy property-owning Madison, or renters and family homes Madison? Status quo Madison, or desegregation Madison? Employers’ Madison, or workers’ Madison? Lesser-evil, party-politics Madison, or aspirational Madison?


Despite a long ballot, there seem to be only three or four candidates seriously in the running. Campaign war chests can’t tell us everything, but they give us some indication of who has popular support by showing what kind of money they can raise, and how many donors give to candidates. With that in mind, we can narrow the field down to Kelda Roys, who outraised every other candidate combined; Nada Elmikashfi, with the largest number of donors (1,489); Amani Latimer Burris, who came in late but scored an endorsement from former Mayor Paul Soglin to bring her campaign in from nowhere; and John Imes, who has stayed in the race by loaning himself over $4,000.


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William Davis III has not submitted any campaign finance reports, so presumably he has nothing to report. Aisha Moe began with a modest $3,100 but only raised $250 in July and has seemingly stopped campaigning. Brian Benford has strong supporters, but they appear to be few in number (only 88 unique donors).


You want to run the world?

Kelda Roys, 41, is a lawyer, real estate agent, and owner of OpenHomes, Inc., an online real estate service. An aspiring career politician, Roys was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in the 81st district (Madison’s north side) in 2008, before trying to run against Mark Pocan for US Congress in 2012 where she was clobbered (Pocan 72.2%, Roys 21.9%). Roys then ran for Governor in the crowded 2018 Democratic primary, taking out a $235,000 home equity loan to finance her campaign. She came  in third place after Tony Evers and Mahlon Mitchell with 12.8% of the vote. Within a day of Risser announcing his retirement, Roys declared her candidacy for the open senate seat. 

Roys has raised $104,897, more than every other candidate combined. She has the second-largest number of donors after Elmikashfi, but also has the most big money donations, with 59 donations over $500; Latimer-Burris has the second-most donations over $500 at 9. Among Roys’ top donors are Haystack CEO and self-described member of the 1% Karl Muth (though he reports his occupation on donations as “teacher”), who previously donated $20,000 to her 2018 gubernatorial campaign; Roys’ father Arthur Thexton, an attorney in Wauwatosa who specializes in “Legal Services for licensed health care professionals who find themselves under investigation by the state”; Jeff Hanson, a capital funds manager; Telisa Yancy, Chief Operating Officer at American Family Insurance; and Laborers International Local 113. Most frequent donors to her campaign overall are retirees and attorneys: people in the business of capital management, real estate development, and law. Roys also returned money donated by Scott Tyre, a petroleum lobbyist with US Venture Inc., and Andrew Engel, consultant for Walmart and Xcel Energy.

With all this cash, how is Roys running her campaign? She’s only dumped half her raised funds as of July 27, and most of it has been to hire consultants to run her campaign. The big outlays include $13,000 to Run the World Digital (whose tagline is literally “You Want to Run the World?”) to run her online campaign; $22,000 for signs, printing and postage; and $4,750 for “consulting.” Roys is running what’s become standard among neoliberal Democrats with an expensive, heavy marketing campaign: consultants, video ads, and lots of mail.

We built this city on family dough

Amani Latimer Burris, field organizer for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, was a last-minute entry into the race. Her stated reasons for running are essentially to flip Wisconsin back to a Democratic majority, but otherwise her campaign reads more like a resume than a platform—it’s unclear what her objectives are. Latimer Burris brought in the most money in July ($21,272.62),  most of which comes from her family. She loaned herself $5,000 and received an additional $2,500 from family members—that’s a third of funds raised. Another third of her money comes from six large donors, resulting in her having the largest average donation in the race ($177.84). 

What’s funny is that among Latimer Burris’s top donors are “spiritual Pied Piper” Maureen Muldoon, and Cathy Richardson of Jefferson Starship. Most of the money spent has been on online advertising, with a chunk for professional videos and photos.

If Latimer Burris has herself and family members to thank for much of her fundraising, so does John Imes, a board trustee for Shorewood Hills and the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. Imes comes in fourth for money raised ($12,562.26), and most of it is from himself: he loaned his campaign $4,000 and got a few large contributions (a doctor, a developer, a contractor), but only has 57 total donations. He’s spent most of his money on brochures and internet ads.

Bringing the grassroots model to Madison

Nada Elmikashfi, 24, is a surprising upstart in a race with professionals and Democratic Party operatives. Elmikashfi has run an aggressive grassroots campaign, drawing the most individual donations (1,489), more than the rest of the field combined, with the lowest average amount ($29.86). Only five of her donations campaign topped $500: a physician in California; a game developer in Seattle; a local programmer; and a reimbursement by the Wisconsin Democratic Party for their software. Roys staffer Madeline Pawlak actually donated to her boss’s opponent Nada Elmikashfi—a parallel to the many staffers on Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign who supported BernieSanders.

Of listed occupations, teachers were Elmikashfi’s largest group of donations (43), in line with her endorsement by American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin and Madison Teachers, Inc. Elmikashfi is running on the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez model of new media engagement (Facebook, Twitter), taking firm stances rather than playing it safe, and relying on a large base of small donors and volunteers to carry the campaign—it’s the kind of campaign funding model that didn’t really exist five years ago, but now is proving itself a real alternative to clientelism.

The downside of all those small donations is that $2,000 were gobbled up by credit card fees. Elmikashfi’s campaign has two staffers at $3000 each, spent $2,800 on brochures,$1,400 on yard signs, and $5,500 for online advertising. Elmikashfi is unique among the top candidates in that she’s the only one who hasn’t spent any money on consultants, and she’s neither taken big money nor loaned herself the funds to run. She’s done something very different in Madison, bringing together young people, black and brown communities, immigrants, socialists, labor, abortion advocates, and environmentalists under her banner, where usually these interests are either unrepresented or divided. We’ll have to see what happens next.

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