Wisconsin’s ‘First Battle’ of 2012 Vote Gets Record Spending

Governor Scott Walker
Governor Scott Walker. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The political balance of power in Wisconsin may shift today as voters in six state Senate districts decide whether to recall a half-dozen Republicans and add fuel to attempts to oust first-term Governor Scott Walker.

Spending on the recall campaigns, aimed at six Republicans today and two Democrats Aug. 16, may almost triple the combined cost of all 115 state legislative races in 2010, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Costs may approach $40 million, the group said.

If Republicans suffer a net loss of three seats, control of the Senate would shift to Democrats, who would be able to block the agenda of Republican Walker, 43. Republican lawmakers control the Wisconsin Legislature and approved Walker’s curbs on collective bargaining for most public employees this year, inciting weeks of protests and prompting the recall campaigns.

“This is viewed as the first battle of the 2012 election,” said Jay Heck, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Common Cause, in a telephone interview. “The campaigns are not to educate the public and shed light. This is about character assassination, innuendo and attack.”

The record number of recall elections has disrupted a normally apolitical Wisconsin summer, with Republican and Democratic interest groups -- most from outside the state -- spending tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads that mirror the nation’s political divisions.

Candidates Are ‘Bystanders’

“It doesn’t matter what the candidates raise,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group that tracks campaign spending. “They might as well be bystanders.”

Republican groups see the votes today as an attack on Walker and a potential threat to his fiscally conservative policies and efforts to rein in the influence of public-employee unions. Democratic groups and organized labor, a traditional ally, view the collective-bargaining curbs as a political assault on unions that could spread nationally.

“These recalls are a battle of the bases,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The ads are used to strike fear into the hearts of the bases.”

Spending estimates are rising. Political interest groups registered with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the state’s elections bureau, reported $14.2 million in spending as of yesterday. At least $14 million in additional spending has come from unregistered groups for television ads and other efforts, said Michael Buelow, research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Neck and Neck

“I’ve heard the Republicans saying the Democrats have radically outspent them, and the other way around,” Buelow said. “Don’t buy it. As best as we can tell, they are running neck and neck on spending.”

The biggest contributors for Democrats are We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of labor groups led by the AFL-CIO, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee. The leading Republican support groups are the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

Recall efforts by Democrats against Republican senators began even before Walker’s collective-bargaining curbs received final legislative approval in March. As many as 16 senators were targeted -- eight Republicans who voted for the bill and eight Democrats who fled the state in an effort to prevent a vote. Recall attempts against eight senators failed to get enough signatures to be put on the ballot.

Arranging Rides

Republicans Dan Kapanke, Sheila Harsdorf, Alberta Darling, Luther Olsen, Robert Cowles and Randy Hopper face recall today, while Democrats Jim Holperin and Robert Wirch are on the ballot Aug. 16. If Democrats win five or six seats today, the races next week would become moot.

Voter turnout in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale was heavier than expected, said Susanne Hanaman, the city clerk.

Common Cause’s Heck said the outcome of today’s vote will influence efforts to oust Walker, who legally can’t be recalled until he has been in office for one year.

Support groups have been arranging rides for people to vote. Lee predicted turnout in the six districts will be about 50 percent, more than twice that of a normal special election.

“I think less than 12 people have not made up their minds,” Heck said. “We’re seeing literally millions of dollars spent to persuade those who have not decided.”

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