Republicans and Democrats locked in state Senate recall battles over Wisconsin's divisive collective bargaining law have raised and spent an unprecedented amount of campaign cash in what has become another national showdown over labor rights.
The Associated Press analyzed campaign finance reports that covered the seven months through July 25 in six recall elections set for next week. The analysis found that the 12 candidates raised a total of $5.3 million over those months. They've spent a total of $4.2 million, with almost half of it coming in July alone.
Those are staggering figures for local races. The most money a single Wisconsin Senate candidate has ever raised for a race is $722,000, according to government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and two incumbent Republican senators have easily surpassed that. Alberta Darling of River Hills has collected $1.1 million and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse has raised $882,000, with a week of fund-raising left before the elections.
The recalls were spurred by anger over the lawmakers' stances on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law, which strips most public workers of nearly all their union rights.
The political battle over the plan has attracted national attention. Tens of thousands of protesters converged at the Wisconsin Capitol this past spring for demonstrations that went on for weeks, and Democratic senators fled the state to stall a vote on the measure. The plan eventually passed the GOP-controlled Legislature without them and survived a court challenge.
Democrats and their supporters launched recall drives this spring against six Republican senators who supported the law. Those campaigns are set to culminate in elections on Aug. 9. Two Democratic senators, meanwhile, face recalls on Aug. 16 stemming from their decision to leave the state. Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay won a ninth recall election last month.
The stakes are high. If Democrats oust three Republicans and hold their two seats, they'll regain control of the Senate and could block any more Walker initiatives. The results also will signal the extent of support for Republican efforts to curb union power in other states, said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim.
"It's very clear that media and groups around America are very aware of what's going on here. This is kind of like the point election," Heim said. "It's a combination of a national referendum on labor and ... on whether a state can and should support the Republican agenda."
The candidates' campaign finance reports didn't include spending by outside groups. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates organizations that are required to disclose their spending to state election officials have reported spending $6.1 million on the nine Senate recalls. The Democracy Campaign's executive director, Mike McCabe, said that judging by ad purchases, groups that aren't required to disclose spending have not only matched that figure but probably surpassed it.
Perhaps even more remarkable, McCabe said, is how quickly the money has flowed in. The recall efforts didn't truly gel until March, meaning most of the money has come in and gone out in a matter of months. Most state Senate candidates can't raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in the regular four-year election cycle, he said, let alone in four months.
"We've never seen anything like this before," McCabe said. "It's just astonishing. People are stirred up. Wisconsin is on a national stage."