Eric Toney won despite being outspent by $1 million. How?
It’s an astonishing David vs. Goliath-style victory, perhaps a political miracle. Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney was outspent by at least $1 million, and he still won.
Look out Josh Kaul.
Toney, a Republican, won barely, by a few thousand votes, against legislator Adam Jarchow (who was a close second) and attorney Karen Mueller. But he won. The election was an enormous repudiation of the power of dark money and donor networks to dictate a race. If you add the votes of Toney and Mueller together, well over half of primary voters chose a person with almost no money and rejected the big donor choice, Jarchow. It was truly an election determined by merit. There’s a new power dynamic in town, and we are very proud of the role we played in educating primary voters in this race.
To fully understand what a jaw-dropping victory this was, consider that Toney only spent about $36,000 in the final weeks of the campaign, but more than a million dollars was dumped on his head during the race by Jarchow and his supporters, much of it extremely negative to the point of lying about Toney.
According to Wispolitics.com, “Groups spent nearly $1 million in independent expenditures to back (Adam) Jarchow and oppose Toney.” (It begs the question as to why they wanted to take out a sitting DA so bad instead of spending that money to defeat Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes or Josh Kaul).
On top of that, the campaigns spent money. Toney raised $112,742 from the January through late July; Jarchow raised $541,950. “Jarchow’s campaign also spent $471,306 during this year, four times the $117,742 Toney’s spent over the same period,” Wispolitics.com reported.
That’s a HUGE spending differential. Toney wasn’t up on TV at all. Jarchow was. The outside groups dumped television and radio ads, direct mail, and text messages on Toney’s head and sent door walkers out for Jarchow.
It was exceptionally sleazy stuff, but that often works. Some of it contained outright lies, such as the text message survey that falsely told voters Toney prosecuted Kyle Rittenhouse (he didn’t; that case wasn’t even in his county.)
On top of it, the Jarchow folks used liberal media as a cudgel. Someone leaked repeated slimy negative attacks to media outlets, especially the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s resident hatchet artist Dan Bice. Surprise, surprise, they then showed up in nasty campaign ads. However, some of those attacks just had an “ick” factor. It’s fairly amazing he survived the attacks; they were pretty brutal.
We’re tempted to say Jarchow’s negative attacks backfired on him, but we believe negative attacks often work. So we’re more tempted to say Toney won DESPITE the negative attacks, not because of them.
So how did Toney’s pumpkin turn into a carriage on election night?
Here are 9 reasons Eric Toney won, in no particular order:
1. His work ethic
We’ve heard many times that Eric Toney was the hardest-working candidate during this primary season. That doesn’t mean others aren’t working hard. It means that he’s particularly hard-working.
He worked very hard to earn the support of the conservative grassroots.
The guy is a machine. And he was doing it with a busy full-time job, sometimes juggling murder trials with campaign duties.
People didn’t just see him once. They saw him twice, three times, four…
Furthermore, when they met him, they liked him. Some candidates get caught in a bubble, sealed away from voters and reporters, with their staffs doing the outreach. Toney does his own outreach. He’d sit down and talk to people. Answer any question. Do it non-defensively. He seemed to relish answering tough questions. And he got good at answering them.
As an example of this, we met him very early on at a back the badge event and then a pints and politics event. He sat down and shot the breeze with us for two hours at the latter event, blowing off another event to do it. Many people have similar stories. He was in the race very early so he had more time than the other candidates to meet grassroots folks and hone his message. Many people said he grew throughout the course of the campaign.
2. Karen Mueller
You can’t discount the Karen Mueller effect. It’s a big part of this story. Karen Mueller, a lawyer from Chippewa Falls, was a late entrant into the race. She had even less money than Toney. She had no PR outreach at all (at least not that we saw). She was not a media presence or a known figure.
And she still pulled a fourth of the vote.
Her decertification and vaccine death platform was different than Jarchow’s and Toney’s. It gave her a selling point. She even took a couple counties! Come to think of it, what was Jarchow’s selling point? He didn’t have Toney’s resume, and he didn’t have Mueller’s platform, either.
There is also a known phenomenon in politics called the “gender affinity effect,” whereby some female voters will choose the female candidate on the ballot. Political observers say they’ve seen this happen in other races, whereby people will select the female name on the ballot just because. Furthermore, although we had never heard of her, Mueller had a presence back home, in the Eau Claire area.
It’s also possible that some voters wouldn’t vote for Toney because of his dismissed COVID prosecutions and wouldn’t vote for Jarchow because of his negative campaigning and anti police votes, so they chose Mueller as the alternative. There also seemed to be an alliance among the Ramthun-Steen-Mueller voters.
Would Toney have lost in a head-to-head match-up against Jarchow? Maybe. Maybe even probably, but who knows? Many people don’t realize the degree that he reached out to some of the rural Patriot groups who ended up supporting Mueller, though. Some of them really liked Toney. There’s no guarantee that Mueller’s vote would have all or mostly gone to Jarchow. But it makes sense, since both Jarchow and Mueller were motivated to run in part because of COVID.
But COVID is waning as a concern for GOP primary voters, replaced by gas, groceries, and crime.
3. Toney Had a Base in the Fox Valley & It Delivered
Only one candidate really had a populous base: Eric Toney. The other two candidates were from pretty rural areas in northwestern Wisconsin.
His nearly 10 years as a high-profile district attorney in Fond du Lac County got him a lot of television time in the Green Bay media market. That made the negative attacks against him less believable to voters in the Valley. They know him.
He had name ID in the Valley, and it carried him home. Fond du Lac County’s margin itself gave him the election. It’s a good thing when a candidate’s home county delivers for him. They know him best. His path to victory ran through the Valley, central and southwestern Wisconsin.
Toney’s day job got him some invaluable earned media because local media covered his cases.
4. His resume
Eric Toney was the only candidate who had ever prosecuted a case. That’s a big reason why Eric Toney won. This matters because the attorney general’s position is the state’s “top cop.” Every attorney general since the 1960s was a prosecutor first. It’s a memorable point and an easy one for people to grasp the significance of.
“I am the only candidate who ever prosecuted a case” is a lethal line against opponents.
However, you need money to alert people to that fact. He didn’t have it. That’s where we came in.
5. Wisconsin Right Now
You could argue that Wisconsin Right Now’s reporting was more valuable than a million bucks, although we do this for free and our motive was educating primary voters.
Some people underestimate the reach of Wisconsin Right Now. At their own peril. We’ve had more than 8 million reads in the past two years, we have a 45,000-person email list that reaches the grassroots, we have a Facebook presence with more than 3 million reach last year, influential people pay attention to what we do, we document and verify EVERY fact, we’re read closely by conservative talk radio AND the liberal media, and they both often pick up our reporting, magnifying it. We understand SEO and our stories now rank alongside mainstream media in some cases via organic Google searches.
We are also trusted by our readers. We can matter in a close conservative primary (less so in a governor’s race where $10 million is being spent). We are the top-ranked conservative news site outside talk radio in Wisconsin and the second-ranked news site among all independent news sites in Wisconsin (a middle-of-the-road podcast driven site in northern Wisconsin is first). That’s per rankings by a credible site run by Amazon.
And we wrote a LOT on this race because we care about it. Very few people were covering it aggressively.
That reporting ended up helping Toney because the facts were on his side. We set out to gather them to educate primary voters.
We focused first on Toney, writing the first story in the state thoroughly exploring his COVID prosecutions way back in June 2021. In retrospect, it was important that he dealt with this issue early and head-on. But he handled the questions with transparency and candor, owned his decisions, and explained them.
Out of fairness, we then thought we should also explore the fact that his then opponent, Professor Ryan Owens, had never prosecuted a case. Owens’ team acted defensively and one even insulted us. That did them no favors. In a quest to educate primary voters, we decided to listen to Owens’ UW-Madison podcasts to see if he was consistent in the conservative values he was espousing. But one, with Never Trumper Charlie Sykes, wouldn’t play. It had been deleted.
We did a story on the missing podcast, it was picked up by the media and talk radio, and Owens was shredded by Mark Belling. In the single most disastrous campaign decision of the entire primary season (matched only by Pat Testin calling Belling “fake news”), Ryan Owens did not respond to questions from Belling in a timely fashion. Big mistake.
Owens then had a disastrous turn on Dan O’Donnell’s show, and… then he suddenly dropped out despite being WAY ahead in the money game. Owen was incredibly well-financed. He got in early. He may very well have won the primary. He also would have been shredded by Democrat Josh Kaul because he had barely been in a courtroom, as Wisconsin Right Now revealed.
Jarchow then entered the race late, and the insider donors around Owens (i.e. the Walker money machine) came with him. He started raising money at an astonishing clip.
However, he had never prosecuted a case, either. We pointed this fact out to readers, many of them influential (like the aforementioned talk show hosts), and it broke through. As we noted, no attorney general candidate since the early 1960s has been elected without being a prosecutor first.
Jarchow was a former legislator, so one day we decided to take a look at his legislative record. Unfortunately, there were some mystifying anti public safety votes in the mix and a couple votes he claimed when he wasn’t even there. But Wisconsin Right Now cares about law enforcement issues.
We also punched back hard when liberal (and even conservative media affiliated with Jarchow) wrote dishonest stories trashing Toney that were very unfair and omitted facts. Those stories then tended to shrivel up and go away (think: crayfish).
Jarchow had made a series of goofy comments on podcasts too that didn’t quite match what he was saying on the campaign trail (people should wear gloves in bars; he worked to get fewer felonies on the books so people would be nicer to cops, etc.) He also called us clowns and hacks.
When you add it all up, Wisconsin Right Now helped voters understand the contrast between the voters’ records and the truth about negative attacks. It’s interesting to ponder how Toney would have fared without that. Remember that the other conservative site in the state, Empower Wisconsin, was literally tied to Jarchow because he had served as its president.
Jarchow was a flawed candidate. That’s a key reason Toney won, but without Wisconsin Right Now people might not have learned much about it in a low-profile race.
We said over and over again that it was important to field the strongest candidate against Josh Kaul. If Kaul wins again, he will be positioned to be governor some day. We also exposed, by the way, Josh Kaul’s crime lab failures and his abolishment of a key gun tracing program used by law enforcement to fight crime.
6. His law enforcement support
The law enforcement endorsements for Toney piled up fast. Police, sheriffs, DAs, and law enforcement associations bypassed the sitting Democratic AG (Josh Kaul) and endorsed Toney.
Toney’s support for law enforcement feels sincere. His father is a retired cop, and he gets emotional when he describes not knowing whether his dad would make it home alive at night. Law enforcement understands that he’s motivated by their interests and is one of them.
Jarchow trashing the state’s largest police association didn’t help.
But people trust candidates when law enforcement trusts them. And they trusted Toney.
The fact Toney has been a district attorney for nearly 10 years and is president-elect of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association helped him too. One way it helped is by deterring another district attorney with prosecution cred from getting into the race. They didn’t want to run against a friend and colleague they respected.
7. Messaging – yes, it’s the “top cop”
Toney’s message was clear, concise, and forceful, and it matched the job description.
He was the candidate of law enforcement and public safety and Kaul has failed at those missions.
Initially, Owens and then Jarchow and their surrogates tried to redefine the attorney general’s position, arguing that it was the “top lawyer,” not the “top cop.” We pushed back hard at that. We’ve been around long enough to know that usually Democrats try to redefine the job away from the “top cop” label because the top cop label benefits Republicans in November. It’s how they’ve won the office! (Think Brad Schimel and JB Van Hollen).
By the end of the campaign, Jarchow basically abandoned the top lawyer nonsense and started focusing on public safety and crime, but he didn’t have the resume to back it up.
8. His strong showing at the convention & Glenn Grothman endorsement
All that outreach to the grassroots paid off in Toney’s strong showing at the state convention, a needed PR boost even though he fell just short of the endorsement.
Still, it gave some voters comfort to hear he did so well, considering all of the negative attacks on him.
His endorsement by Congressman Glenn Grothman, who had worked with Toney through Toney’s job as DA, may have also given voters comfort.
9. Mark Belling
The Milwaukee talkers stayed neutral in this race (if they’d all gone in for Jarchow, it would have cost Toney the race.)
Dan O’Donnell held some really good debates, asking tough questions of all candidates, and Toney’s experience before a jury showed here because he shined.
But a single line by Mark Belling might have gotten him some votes. Right before the primary, Belling said that, although he was staying neutral, Toney had the best chance to defeat Josh Kaul.
And that’s where the rubber meets the road.