August 4, 2011 -- Months have passed since protests snared the Wisconsin state capital and a collective bargaining argument shut down the state government. But the anger has not died away, and legislators from both parties face recall elections.
It may sound like a local Wisconsin issue, but both sides say this is a major bellwether for 2012, and a staggering amount of money -- about $30 million -- is being spent by outside interest groups to influence the recall elections.
This month, voters will go to the polls to either keep or replace their state senators. On Tuesday, six incumbent Republicans are facing recall and the possibility that the chamber flips control from the Republicans to Democrats. The following week, two Democrats are also facing recall.
It all began with a sea change in state government. Republican Gov. Scott Walker assumed office in January and Republicans gained control of the state legislature, putting forward a budget aimed at austerity and limiting the rising costs of public employee benefits, which ended 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 protestors on both sides of the issue gathered at the state capitol to protest or support Walker's move.
After Walker signed the legislation, Democrats began gathering signatures on petitions to recall the senators involved who were eligible, i.e., had been in office more than a year. Republicans responded in kind, saying Democrats fled 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.
An unprecedented amount of money is being poured into the Badger State from outside groups on both sides of the aisle. Democrats want the win not just to overturn the measure, but to send a message to national Republicans and fire up their supporters going into the 2012 elections.
Neil Sroka, press secretary of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says they have joined up with another liberal activist group, Democracy for America, to spend $2 million in the state -- $1.5 million on television ads and $500,000 on grassroots work.
"It's absolutely crucial. This was the start of the war on working families this year. These folks in Wisconsin are fighting back and they are going to fight back strong," Sroka told ABC News. "They have a chance to take back the senate and send a resounding message not just to Republicans in Wisconsin, but Democrats across the country that if you take on Republicans and stand up and fight, you can win."
Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan political watchdog group that tracks campaign money, and he says the amount of money being spent is around $30 million, with $25 million of that coming from outside groups on both sides and $5 million being spent by the candidates. McCabe added the election has been "hijacked" by outside groups from both parties.
"It's wall-to-wall TV ads. There is a hell of a lot of on-the-ground work at the same time there are air wars," McCabe said. "We don't see statewide elections that get this pricey. It's at least 30 million that has already been spent … and the meter is still running."
Political science professor at St. Norbert College Charley Jacobs agrees: "It feels like a general election campaign at the end of October. It has been non-stop. Even though some of the candidates have raised a lot of money, most of the ads are from outside groups."
McCabe says voters in Wisconsin are "desperate for it to end" and the ads are "overwhelmingly negative" and "in the gutter." Despite both Republicans and Democrats claiming they are being outspent, he says it's close.
"I think the money battle is remarkably close," McCabe said, referring to both candidates and outside groups. "With interest groups…based on what we are seeing, there is a very slight edge to Republican groups, but not by much."
The Tea Party Express is joining up with other like- minded groups to launch a bus tour Friday for the four days leading up to Tuesday's election. They will hit nine cities, ending in a rally in Green Bay on Monday night. They launched television ads in the state on Thursday, according to Levi Russell, communications director for the Tea Party Express. Russell said it was about a $50,000 buy and says the tour stops will look like other Tea Party Express rallies they've held all over the country before voters go to the polls.
"The purpose is to celebrate the great things about Wisconsin and this country and change the tone of the debate and the intense anger, the personal attacks, and the fearmongering that's been pounded into Wisconsin voters," Russell said. "And remind them these state senators made the tough decisions to help get the economy back and make Wisconsin prosperous for everyone rather than the villains they have been made out to be for having stood with Governor Walker."
Jacobs says the number of remaining undecided voters in the election are small, but neither side feels as if the money is wasted because it is an investment for 2012.
"Wisconsin is pre-season for 2012 because so many of the broader issues raised by Gov. Walker and the Republican majority parallel the national scene. Some of these outside groups are testing messages and plumbing the depth of interest to the electorate. They aren't wasting money," Jacobs said. "They are betting some of this will work out for them."
Democracy for America says they have knocked on 50,000 doors in three of the districts involved over the last three weeks, and their goal is to knock on another 50,000 doors in the remaining three days.
Levana Layendecker, the communications director for DFA, agrees that this is their "top priority" and it "sets the stage" for 2012.
"From the DFA's perspective it is the most important campaign. We are focusing … all our resources. To us, it is more important than the debt ceiling [fight]. It shows Republicans have gone too far," Layendecker said.
Sroka also mentioned the debt ceiling debate and said it's a "real contrast" between what's going on in Wisconsin and the debt negotiations, setting a win on Tuesday as redemption for what the progressive movement saw as a loss earlier this week.
"This week in Washington, Democrats gave in to Republican and Republicans got everything they wanted," Sroka said. "What's going on in Wisconsin is, students and workers are fighting back and are going to be successful on Tuesday."
Many of the groups involved in the debt ceiling fight on both sides are also involved in the Wisconsin recall election.
Conservative activist groups -- FreedomWorks; the Wisconsin affiliate of Club for Growth (which does not coordinate with its national arm); and Americans for Prosperity, among others -- are also pouring money into the race. One political action committee, the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, is fundraising up to the last minute, continuing to send e-mails to supporters.
The e-mails ask for a donation and claim "new polling" they've obtained show Republicans ahead in three and down in three of the races on Tuesday, adding they are placing another round of television and internet ads for the campaign.
However, polling is difficult, as McCabe pointed out, that it's hard to know who will show up in the middle of the summer.
"When it comes down to turnout and who votes, based on the primaries there might be an edge to Democrats, who've got the most stirred-up voters, but when it comes to campaigning and the money game, it's pretty close to a draw," McCabe said.
Jacobs agreed, saying he doesn't think it's possible to tell right now and polls are both close and unreliable when many Wisconsinites go to their summer cabins in the north, but the Democrats "have an outside chance" of gaining three seats Tuesday, stressing it is a "possibility."
Jacobs says that even if that does happen, and Democrats gain a majority, they'll still be "holding their breath" until Aug. 16 when two Democrats face recall. At least one of the Republicans challenging an incumbent Democrat has tea party support and could benefit from the national attention.
There has already been one recall election held on July 19. Incumbent Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen was able to hold onto his seat from challenger Republican David VanderLeest.