"Never has so much money been spent on so few voters."
The battle over the political fate of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is historic, emotional and grass-roots politics at its most intense.
Based on state campaign finance reports and advertising buys, it's also become extraordinarily expensive.
Special interest groups, political heavyweights and average citizens are investing heavily in the Badger State these days, so much so that by the time an expected recall election takes place in June, political fundraising and spending for both sides could total $80 million, shattering the record for a Wisconsin state race.
"Astonishing," said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group in Madison that tracks money spent on state politics and elections.
"The amount is just so staggering," said Jim Camery, of River Falls, Wis., and co-chair of the Pierce County Democrats. "It's just unbelievable."
The record for campaign spending on a Wisconsin state race is $37.4 million, set in 2010 when Walker was elected governor. But McCabe said "it's a foregone conclusion" that the sum raised and spent on a gubernatorial recall, the first ever for Wisconsin and only the third in U.S. history, will easily surpass that.
The hefty investment is a reflection of the significance of the race, not only statewide, but nationally.
When Walker moved last year to slash state spending by stripping public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, he sparked an intense national debate over the fate of America's working class.
In the uproar that followed, nine Wisconsin state senators -- three Democrats and six Republicans -- faced recall challenges last summer. Only two, both Republicans, were defeated.
But the anger and debate was only beginning to build. This spring, in addition to Walker, four state senators and the lieutenant governor also were targeted for recalls. And the outcome of those elections will have ramifications for November, when President Obama runs for re-election and voters decide control of the U.S. Senate, said Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.
"Everybody wants to be in on it because they realize the historical significance of it," said Jesse Garza, chairman of the St. Croix County Republican Party. "This is extremely unusual. For the president himself, this is high stakes. This is a state he won in 2008. If he can't turn out the base to get rid of a governor his base hates, he's going to struggle.
"That's why all the money is coming in. It's not all about saving Walker. It's about saving Obama."
Said McCabe: "We're really a pawn on a national chess board here. These recall elections have become something of a national referendum, and there are interests all across the country who are trying to influence the outcome on both sides."
Those interests weighed in heavily last summer, when a total of $44 million was spent on nine state senate recall elections. Of that, $34.5 million came from outside interest groups, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
"We had a number of candidates who broke the record for fundraising and spending," McCabe said. "And yet they got pushed to the sidelines and became spectators in their own race."
It could be much the same in coming weeks.
Tentative dates for a May 8 Democratic primary to decide a challenger and June 5 general recall election were set just Wednesday, yet "we're already seeing a huge amount of out-of-state fundraising," McCabe said, a reflection of the statewide gubernatorial race.
So far, Walker has compiled a record $12.1 million, according to the state's Government Accountability Board, which is responsible for administering elections and gathering and documenting campaign finance reports.
McCabe said that based on campaign finance reports and advertising research, an estimated six of every seven dollars raised so far is from outside the state.
"What's happened on the ground -- the protests at the Capitol, the recall petition drives -- that's very much home-grown activity," he said. "But when it comes to election advertising and the air wars we're seeing, that's being bankrolled by interest groups outside Wisconsin."
The biggest outside spender for Republicans so far is Americans For Prosperity, a conservative group funded largely by billionaires David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, McCabe said.
On the flip side, the National Democratic Governors Association is raising large sums. So is We Are Wisconsin, which, despite its name, raises most of its money outside the state, McCabe said. The organization spent $10.7 million on last summer's senate recall races, with $10.1 million coming from three national unions -- the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union.
Few on the fence
Whether the big money will make a difference is uncertain.
"Ads work well in an information vacuum," McCabe said. "But there is no information vacuum with Walker. People have been talking about this for a year."
Franklin said monthly polling by Marquette Law School has showed that most voters have made up their minds -- only about 5 to 10 percent are undecided, regardless of the Democratic candidate running against Walker.
Depending on the candidate and the poll, Walker either leads or trails by a small amount, he said.
"Never has so much money been spent on so few voters," Franklin said. "Changing people's minds about the governor is probably going to be very hard to do."
Camery, the co-chair of the Pierce County Democrats in western Wisconsin, said that with so few voters on the fence, "it's pretty evident that our challenge is going to be to get our side out. Walker didn't win by that much. The issue wasn't that he got a lot of votes, it's that our side didn't show up. So the challenge is going to be getting people to vote."
It's the same for Republicans.
"The independent vote always matters, but the base is going to be critical," said Garza, chairman of the St. Croix County Republican Party. "Which base is more motivated is what it's going to come down to. And the money is spent to get the message out."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425