MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Senate President Mike Ellis defended himself Wednesday after the release of a hidden-camera video that appears to reveal him talking about organizing illegal campaign activity against his opponent.
The video was produced by Project Veritas, an national organization led by conservative activist James O’Keefe. He is known for his hidden-camera videos targeting the community organizing group ACORN, Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio.
His latest focuses on Ellis, a moderate who has sometimes been at odds with more conservative Republicans. Ellis, the Senate’s second most powerful member and the second longest-serving senator, is running for re-election this fall against Democratic state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber of Appleton.
The posted material includes a mix of both video and audio snippets that Ellis said were made two weeks ago at a bar near the Capitol. Ellis is heard saying that he intends to establish a super PAC to attack Schaber so he doesn’t have to do it personally. It is against Wisconsin law for a candidate to coordinate with political action committees or outside groups.
Ellis says on the audio that he intends to raise $500,000, but another person, Republican fundraiser Judi Rhodes Engels, will “manufacture the crap.”
“I don’t want to attack her,” Ellis said of Schaber. “I want Judi, somebody else to attack.”
Ellis told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the video and audio recordings were taken out of context. For years, he has been an outspoken opponent of the influence of political action committees and other outside spending on elections. He said the recordings captured him talking loosely about things he considered doing, but ultimately didn’t.
Ellis said he contemplated creating the super PAC, but dropped the idea after realizing it was illegal. He said he didn’t contact anyone and didn’t take any steps to establish it.
“Obviously, I look terrible and I understand that,” Ellis said. “A, we never did it. B, we can’t do it.”
Schaber, who is completing her third term in the Assembly, said she hadn’t seen the video but twas aware of its content.
“I find it very disappointing that campaigns seem to be going in this direction,” Schaber said. “My plan is to have a positive, accountable and transparent campaign.”
In the video, Ellis can be heard listing the names of five donors he said will each give him $50,000. Current Wisconsin law forbids donations of more than $1,000 to a single candidate for the Senate, but there are no limits on what can be given to a political action committee.
Ellis said he never contacted Rhodes or any of the potential donors. Ellis said the conversation was in the context of what can be done to combat special interest money in elections.
“At the time I was talking, I was blowing steam over recent Supreme Court decisions” loosening campaign finance laws, Ellis said.
Liberals said the video shed light on Republican strategy and it’s inconceivable to believe Ellis wouldn’t know what he was talking about was illegal.
“To the Wisconsin GOP, breaking election law is just another tool to gain power,” said Josh Orton, spokesman for Progressives United, a PAC established by former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. “Sen. Ellis was simply caught explaining the strategy.”
Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said there was no way Ellis could explain his comments.
“This is the hypocrisy of a 40-year incumbent willing to say one thing at home and think he can get away with doing another in Madison,” Ross said. “And it is emblematic of a Wisconsin GOP out of control, thinking the laws no longer apply to them.”
Ellis, of Neenah, has been unchallenged the three previous elections for the Senate seat he has held since 1982. He represents northeastern Wisconsin’s 19th Senate district, which includes Appleton, Menasha and Neenah.
But he’s also elicited ire from more conservative Republicans for being too moderate.
“Clearly they want me out of the state Senate,” Ellis said.
There had been talk of Ellis facing a more conservative primary opponent, but no candidate has emerged.
At 73, Ellis has described himself as a “moderate to conservative but independent voice.” He opposed Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals related to expanding the school voucher program and cutting funding for public schools.
Ellis also tried to convince Walker to ease off his confrontation with unions in 2011, but Walker refused and Ellis ultimately voted for the governor’s plan that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
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