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."