Wisconsin voters head to the polls today in six recall votes that both political parties stress have implications not just for the Badger state but the entire country.
Outside groups on both sides have poured in millions of dollars for television advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats hope to take three of the seats to flip the state Senate from Republican to Democratic control, and also set the stage for similar collective bargaining and budget fights in other states.
Six Republican state senators are facing recall votes today in mostly tight races that will depend on voter turnout in an unusual summer election, when much of the electorate are thinking more about vacations than going to the polls.
Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, said Democrats appear to have more enthusiasm but it's a tossup at this point.
"It looks right now like two seats are leaning Democratic and two are in the tossup category," he said. "Two of the races were leaning Republican up until this week, which seems to be picking up a trend that the Democrats may do better than expected."
The recall effort began in January when Republican Gov. Scott Walker assumed office and Republicans gained control of the state legislature, putting forward a budget aimed at austerity and limiting the rising costs of public employee benefits by ending collective bargaining for all public workers except police and firefighters.
Democrats in the state legislature left the state to avoid voting on the measure, while thousands of protesters on both sides of the issue flooded the state capital to protest or support Walker's move. After Walker signed the legislation, Democrats began gathering signatures on petitions to recall specific senators who were eligible.
Republicans responded in kind, saying Democrats abandoned their duty. Enough signatures were gathered to target six Republicans and two Democrats. If the Senate does change hands, Democrats could overturn Walker's legislation.
The level of campaign spending has been unprecedented, especially considering it is a recall effort. Spending through Monday was estimated at about $28 million from outside groups on both sides of the aisle and about $5 million spent by the candidates themselves, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
That number was expected to increase by today. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign officials "estimate at this point it's about even," research director Mike Buelow said of spending on both sides.
The group will do a full accounting of spending after the election and will have a clearer picture of whether the spending totals are even.
JR Ross, the editor of Wispolitics.com, said turnout will determine which side is victorious by the end of the day.
"I don't care who you talk to who says they know, they don't," Ross said. "It's all about turnout. We're in an unprecedented situation. … We don't have elections in August in Wisconsin in the middle of summer.
"We do know that Democrats and union members are motivated and angry at Republicans and Walker specifically. If Republican voters can match that intensity and turn out in numbers to protect their guys, [then the Republican senators will be safe]. If not, the Democrats win control."
Both sides are so invested financially and on the ground because of the national message a victory on either side will send.