• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

In this edition: Wisconsin’s high-stakes and low-profile election, Andy Kim’s victory over the New J͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
sunny Bismark
sunny Washington, D.C.
cloudy Hartford
rotating globe
March 26, 2024


Sign up for our free newsletters
David Weigel

The battle over ‘Zuckerbucks’ comes to Wisconsin

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images


A black-and-white picture of Elon Musk pops up on Facebook. His fingers are tented — the international gesture for “up to no good.” The message, paid for by a conservative Wisconsin group: “Stop Republican billionaires and big corporations from influencing the outcome of Wisconsin’s elections!”

The ad, which MacIver Impact started running last week, urges a “yes” vote on Questions 1 and 2, constitutional amendments that the GOP legislature in Madison put on the April 2 ballot.

At first glance, the issues involved might seem a bit niche. The first measure would bar election officials from accepting private grants; the second would require that “only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections, and referendum.”

But the amendments are in fact part of a quietly successful nationwide campaign by Republicans, which grew out of MAGA anger at how $400 million in donations from Mark Zuckerberg to nonprofits were used by local officials to pay expenses and reach out to voters during the 2020 elections. After turnout rose in Democratic cities, Republicans derided those gifts as “Zuckerbucks.”

Some MacIver ads use Zuckerberg himself as their bogeyman. Musk never actually funded election grants, but he makes a more convenient villain for liberals, whom the referendum’s backers are still targeting. Elected Democrats oppose both measures, which are based on legislation that Gov. Tony Evers, like other Democratic governors, smothered with a veto.

“These will basically ban Zuckerbucks,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said in a Monday night video, shared by the Wisconsin GOP, urging Republicans to support Trump on April 2 and vote “yes” on both questions.

Johnson’s ad was notable, because there has been little outside interest in the Question 1 and 2 vote, and no mass mobilization for or against it. Third-party groups like the state ACLU and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are attacking it, and the state League of Women Voters has warned that the changes would make the work of local election officials harder. Republicans say it’ll restore voters’ confidence in their elections since the 2020 experience of cities using grants to increase Democratic turnout has angered Trump voters ever since.

“This proposed constitutional amendment is aimed to stop private entities and out-of-state billionaires from circumventing campaign finance laws, directly buying off cities, and using the government entity as a targeted Get-Out-The-Vote effort,” state Sen. Eric Wimberger, the sponsor of the ballot questions, said in a statement to Semafor.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party is implementing its usual organizing program, building toward the November election, and saving its resources. The Wisconsin GOP is doing more outreach, but Assembly Republicans planned for an easy win; they sent the measures to the April 2 ballot when they anticipated a bustling presidential primary after a slow holiday weekend.

“What do you think that electorate is going to look like?” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos asked a meeting of Republicans last year. “Super conservative, right?”

There’s no longer a Haley-Trump grudge match to turn out more voters. But with little else to drive turnout, the anti-“Zuckerbuck” side may have more enthusiasm. At the margins, anyway.

“I was literally lying in bed last night, looking at Twitter, and saying, ‘Gee, I wonder what is out there,’” said Brian Schimming, the chair of the Wisconsin GOP. “And I didn’t really see much.”


Nationally, the post-2020 crusade against “Zuckerbucks” has been an under-the-radar success, with bans already in effect across 27 states. Where Democrats could block the bans, they did; where possible, conservatives simply went around them. Five months ago, after then-Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a ban on private grants going to state election officials, voters passed it by 46 points.

“These things generally pass,” said Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, and an opponent of both ballot questions. “We call this the sour grapes amendment. It’s the last gasp of the gerrymandered Republican legislature.”

At the root of all this is bone-deep mutual mistrust — Democrats fearful that underfunded elections will lead to chaos and suppressed votes, Republicans furious at how, based on their research, cities like Milwaukee and Madison used grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to drum up votes in Democratic areas.

“Imagine if the refs were paid for by a tech billionaire from San Francisco,” Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil said at a House hearing last month, shortly before the Super Bowl, on the “Zuckerbucks” problem. “How do you think Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs fans would feel about that?”

At that hearing, where Republicans advanced a national “Zuckerbucks” ban, Democrats didn’t defend the private grant process — which Zuckerberg has said he won’t fund again. They viewed the 2020 election as a black swan event, and the grants as a backstop, available to any election official, after the extra money they’d wanted to fund a pandemic election wasn’t appropriated by Congress.

Wisconsin cities used the grants to hire election workers, pay them more, and buy new equipment and PPE. But they also spent some money on voter outreach, which Republicans attacked in post-election lawsuits, and Democrats don’t defend.

“I think we can all agree that no private funding should be funding our elections,” Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell said. “It should be public funding, and it should be adequate funding.”

Democrats haven’t made a positive argument for keeping the grants legal (though, to Republicans’ dismay, both Madison and Milwaukee have quickly processed private grants to buy new election equipment). They are more concerned about Question 2 — the rule that elections may only be run by “officials designated by law.”

Some worry the law would prevent municipalities from relying on the volunteers who currently make up the backbone of their election-day operations. Others have raised concerns that could create problems for cities that use churches, community centers, or private schools as polling places. “The plain language appears to prevent election officials from even using tables or equipment or facilities at polling places that could be privately owned,” said Amanda Merkwae, the advocacy director for the state ACLU, which has contacted more than 22,000 supporters in Wisconsin to urge a “no” vote.

Schimming said that new questions about old topics – implementation and grant-handling – could come after the vote. Madison officials, who’d just used a $1.5 million grant on machinery to process absentee ballots faster, would be “receiving open records requests with my name on them.” In the meantime, he didn’t see Democrats scrambling their jets to beat either question.

“Most of the Democrats I know are more worried about Biden being embarrassed than they are about the Zuckerbucks thing,” he said. “But they may change their mind on that next Tuesday night.”


Evers hasn’t been barnstorming against the ballot questions, but he opposes them.

“Gov. Evers has vetoed every Republican-backed bill designed to enable politicians to interfere with our elections, prevent eligible Wisconsinites from casting their ballots, and make it harder for our clerks, election administrators, and poll workers to keep our elections safe and secure,” said Evers’ communications director Britt Cudaback. “The governor thinks it’s ridiculous Republicans are continuing to try and enact their radical agenda through constitutional amendments because they don’t have the votes to pass their divisive policies through the legislative process.”


There’s no candidate competition at the top of the ballot, but the Gaza protest vote has begun to mobilize in Wisconsin — a “vote uninstructed” campaign, urging progressives to pick that on their ballot to send a message to Biden. That, said Halah Ahmad, could turn out more progressive “no” votes.

“That’s a positive side effect of our campaign – which is underappreciated by those in the Democratic Party who are pretty unhappy with us,” said Ahmad. “We see this as an opportunity to bring people back into the democratic system and make them feel heard and empowered.”


  • In Bolts, Alex Burness reports on the dangers voting rights advocates see if Question 2 passes, including the legality of tasks “volunteers and outside organizations routinely perform in aid of the nearly 2,000 county and municipal clerks who run Wisconsin’s elections.”
  • In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kristin Brey worries that the amendments will be voted on before voters understand them. “If this passes, could it mean that voluntary poll workers can’t volunteer? No one knows apparently.”
State of Play

New Jersey. First Lady Tammy Murphy folded her U.S. Senate campaign on Sunday, clearing a path to the Democratic nomination for Rep. Andy Kim.“I will not in good conscience waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat,” Murphy said in a video statement, after a bruising, months-long battle for county endorsements that saw her lose nine open conventions. Kim thanked her and quickly started securing endorsements from the Democrats who’d backed Murphy when she entered the race and looked like the candidate to beat. Kim will still face progressive organizer Patricia Campos-Medina and three other Democrats in the June primary. Murphy’s decision to drop out will alter, but not end, a lawsuit aimed at New Jersey’s machine-friendly “line” system — which gives candidates with the county party’s official endorsement better placement on the ballot.

Alabama. A special state legislative election around Huntsville ends today, with Republicans defending a swing seat in the first vote since the state supreme court ruled that embryos created during IVF had the legal rights of children. Democrat Marilyn Lands is running against the state’s abortion ban, while Republican Teddy Powell said she supported an IVF carve-out, which the supermajority in Montgomery passed before Election Day.

Brian Fitzpatrick for All of Us

Alsobrooks for Senate, “Jamie Raskin.” Maryland Rep. David Trone has spent more than $23 million on his U.S. Senate campaign, funding months of TV ads. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks only went on the air last month, but she’s lapped Trone in support from elected Democrats. Rep. Raskin appears here to endorse her again and sum up the Democratic case against ex-Gov. Larry Hogan — he’d be “another brick in the wall for Trump and his party.” Alsobrooks et al. are sticking to that, even as Hogan says he won’t personally support Trump.

Brian Fitzpatrick for All of Us, “Mark Houck: Narcissist.” Two years ago, an underfunded challenger won 35% of the primary vote against Pennsylvania’s most moderate Republican congressman. This cycle, anti-abortion activist Mark Houck jumped into this race with bigger name ID but only slightly more money — less than $70,000 spent so far. Fitzpatrick has aimed his guns at Houck anyway, with a 60-second digital spot that turns his chatty, confessional video interviews into liabilities. It’s the year’s first attack ad that mentions a candidate’s porn addiction.

Somos Pilares, “No Alcanza.” Democrats barely contested Texas’s new 15th Congressional District in 2022, ceding a seat that had been drawn to elect a Latino Republican — Rep. Monica de la Cruz. Their nominee, Michelle Valejo, lost by 8 points, as the GOP attacked her as a radical left-winger. Somos Pilares, one of the campaign groups founded by the Way to Win donor network, is trying to soften up de la Cruz with a class-focused Social Security message, quoting a flooring company owner who’s angry about the congresswoman supporting a GOP austerity bill.


The reddening of the Rio Grande Valley made Democrats a little less bullish on flipping Texas. Rep. Colin Allred isn’t generating the same giddy enthusiasm among national donors that Beto O’Rourke did six years ago. But Cruz remains less popular than the statewide GOP, with a 2-point net favorable rating; 53% of Texans say they have no opinion of Allred. Democratic candidates who voters don’t know very well continue to run stronger than Biden — here in Texas, in North Carolina, in Nevada, in Ohio, everywhere.

In 2020, Michigan was the Midwestern swing state where Biden ran strongest, winning by more than 150,000 votes. The economic picture in the state has improved since Biden took office, with unemployment down from 6.5% to 3.9%. It hasn’t helped Biden, who trails Trump on the question of who’d do more to fix “the economy,” and on nearly everything else. He leads on handling “abortion,” and on presidential temperament, but trails Trump even on which candidate would better handle the situation in Israel, despite the Republican saying almost nothing about the conflict until this week.

On the Trail
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

White House. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his running mate on Tuesday: Lawyer and entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan, a (formerly) Democratic donor who’d given $4 million to his super PAC, which helped fund his throwback Super Bowl ad. At an event in Oakland, Kennedy told supporters that the 38-year old Shanahan could “rally support for our movement against uniparty rule.” And after a short launch video, Shanahan said as vice president, she’d bring together experts to “use the latest in AI and computation to examine the health records databases of our nation and other nations who are also on a quest to solve chronic disease.” Shanahan is perhaps best known as the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin; the Wall Street Journal reported that their marriage ended after she had a brief affair with Elon Musk, though Shanahan and the Tesla CEO denied the allegation

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns were dismissive. On a call with reporters, Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow dismissed Kennedy as “Donald Trump with a Kennedy name slapped on him,” and the Shanahan choice as a failed pander to women. In a text, MAGA Inc. spokesman Alex Pfeiffer said that Kennedy was a “far-left radical” who’d picked a “Biden donor leftist as his running mate.”

The campaign hasn’t closed Shanahan’s total wealth, but there’s precedent for a third-party candidate selecting a running mate who can spend personal resources on their campaign. In 1980, the Libertarian Party put David Koch on the ticket, who’d end up spending $2.1 million on their campaign, in a cycle when the major-party candidates each spent less than $30 million.

Donald Trump campaigned in Indiana on Tuesday, rallying with Rep. Jim Banks, who has no competition for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination; President Biden and Vice President Harris went to North Carolina, to highlight the state’s new Medicaid enrollments under the Affordable Care Act and warn that Trump would make another run at repealing the law.

House. Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher surprised colleagues on Friday by announcing that he’d quit the House on April 19, leaving his safe Republican seat vacant for much of the year. “This is the swamp and the RINOs’ way to backstab their constituents and the Republican voters one last time,” said pro-Trump influencer Alex Bruesewitz told attendees at a Sunday night GOP dinner in the district. Bruesewitz, who was raised in the district and has relocated there from Florida, hasn’t entered the campaign yet; the two Republicans who have (state Sen. Andre Jacque and ex-state Senate President Roger Roth) are both running as more MAGA-loyal conservatives than Gallagher.

  • four days until the Democratic presidential primary in North Dakota
  • seven days until presidential primaries in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin
  • 11 days until the Democratic presidential primary in Alaska
  • 111 days until the Republican National Convention
  • 146 days until the Democratic National Convention
  • 230 days until the 2024 presidential election