So much money is being poured into Wisconsin's recall elections that the amount raised by the candidates themselves is almost inconsequential, a campaign watchdog says.
"Already there has been more than $2 million spent on ads in Milwaukee," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It doesn't matter what the candidates raise. They might as well be bystanders."
McCabe estimated Wednesday that special-interest groups would spend $25 million on all of Wisconsin's recall elections. Combined with spending by candidates in the nine recall races, that should push the number up to $30 million.
By comparison, the hotly contested 2010 race for governor that pitted Republican Scott Walker against Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett saw $34 million in spending.
Union group has raised $9.7 million for Democrats
On Tuesday, We Are Wisconsin, a registered political committee of unions led by the AFL-CIO, filed a report showing that it raised $4.77 million in July, bringing its total to $9.72 million. The group has supported Democratic candidates in general and in the recall races.
McCabe said spending by the group on recall elections is about $8.8 million to date. He cautioned that some of the group's money may have gone to other elections that do not involve recalls.
As startling as the figure is, McCabe said it is likely that the unregistered groups have raised as much or more to support GOP candidates.
It's hard to track exactly how much money is raised by the outside groups.
McCabe has an aide stationed in the office of the Government Accountability Board, the state agency that oversees state elections.
The outside organizations registered with the agency reported raising $12.5 million statewide since the campaigns began in March, he said.
At least that much or more is being spent by special-interest groups that are not registered with the state, McCabe said.
Groups that avoid the "magic words" - direct endorsements such as "vote for" - don't have to register with the state.
"It's easy to craft an ad that avoids the magic words," McCabe said. "You can describe a candidate as the best or worst legislator ever. You can disparage or sing the praises of a candidate and not have to register."
The only way to track the unregistered spending is to track how much radio and television time is purchased as well as the relatively cheap fliers that have been sent to district households.
He estimates that We Are Wisconsin has spent $1 million to support Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch. Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling has received about $800,000 in ad support from the conservative Club for Growth; $235,000 from the American Federation for Children; and $100,000 from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a group that calls itself the voice for business in the state.
McCabe said it appears that the special-interest spending so far tilts a little more in Darling's direction than in Pasch's.
"If you look at the spending done by all the Assembly and Senate candidates in 2010, they spent $3.75 million," McCabe said. "We are talking about $13 million (so far) being spent on nine races."
Six Republicans senators face recall elections on Aug. 9 and voters will go to the polls a week later as two Democrats try to hold onto their seats.
8th District race a record-breaker
McCabe predicted that the Pasch-Darling race would easily be the most expensive legislative race in state history. It is already generating national attention.
The candidates, McCabe said, legally can say nothing about what the special-interest groups say in their ads. Asked if the candidates would be beholden to the special-interest groups that support them, McCabe said it goes beyond that.
"They aren't beholden," he said. "They are deathly afraid of these groups because if they don't do what these groups want them to do, they will see several million dollars thrown against them in the next campaign."
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said the outside money is a reflection of how important these races are viewed both inside and outside the state.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida are all watching the recall elections with intense interest.
"All these states are facing the same public policy issues," he said. "The others are looking to see if what was done here will be ratified by the voters or if the public believes they went too far."
If the Democrats pick up three seats in the recall elections, they will take control of the Senate and could thwart the Republican agenda.
A win for the Democrats could also cause Republicans in other states to back off similar legislative changes, Franklin said.
"The big question is how many people will turn out to vote in August," Franklin said. "The evidence from the primaries are that the voters are still fired up and we are likely to see large numbers at the polls."
Darling, , was asked about her confidence of a win.
"I'm not sure at all about it," she said. "It's all about the turnout."