MADISON, Wis. - Spending in five Wisconsin recall elections shattered the previous record as unions, shadowy special interest groups and other pour millions of dollars into races that are proving to be battlegrounds in a national political fight over the Republican agenda.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a government watchdog group that tracks spending by candidates and other groups, said Friday that five of the nine recall races have exceeded the 11-year-old legislative race record of $3 million.
The Democracy Campaign estimated total spending on all nine races to be what director Mike McCabe called an "absolutely jaw-dropping" $31.5 million. That's nearly as much as the $37 million spent in last year's governor's race won by Republican Scott Walker.
"Candidates are barely being heard from," McCabe said. "They're being outspent on the order of 5-1 by interest groups that have a near monopoly on campaign spending."
Of the total, only about $5 million was spent by the candidates.
Walker and Republicans swept into office in November, capturing both houses of the Legislature from Democrats. The recalls were motivated by Republicans' passage of Walker's bill stripping nearly all collective bargaining rights from most state workers.
Democrats cast the elections as a referendum on Walker and Republicans, while the GOP has tried to hold its ground, vindicate its policies and show strength heading into the 2012 presidential election.
The most money to date in the recall elections has been spent in the Milwaukee-area 8th District race between incumbent Republican Sen. Alberta Darling and Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch. The Democracy Campaign put the tab there at $7.9 million.
The candidates, interest groups and others have blanketed the expensive Milwaukee television market with ads and filled mailboxes with direct mail in that race. Darling is one of six Republicans facing recall elections Tuesday, with two Democrats on the ballot a week later.
Democrats need to win five of the eight races to retake majority control in the Senate. One Democrat, Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay, won his recall election last month.
Total spending in Hansen's race, which he won handily with 66 percent of the vote, was just $1.1 million, the Democracy Campaign said. The only one with less spending has been the 2nd District, where the tab is at just $750,000. The Republican incumbent there, Sen. Rob Cowles of Allouez, is generally seen as being in a stronger position than others targeted for recall. His Democratic challenger is former Brown County Executive Nancy Nusbaum.
The third lowest spending was in the 22nd District, where Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie faced a challenge from Republican Jonathan Steitz, a Kenosha attorney. The Democracy Campaign said about $1.9 million had been spent on that race, which Democrats are expected to win.
Other spending outlined by the Democracy Campaign:
_ $5.5 million in the 14th District, where Republican incumbent Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon faces Democratic state Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo. This is seen as one of the most competitive races with Clark, in his second term in the Assembly, trying to knock off Olsen, a moderate who ran unopposed in his two previous races.
_ $5 million in the 10th District, where Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls faces Ellsworth public school teacher Shelly Moore. The costs in this western Wisconsin race have been driven largely by advertising being run in the expensive Minneapolis television market. Harsdorf's race in 2000 held the previous record high for spending.
_ $3.2 million in the 18th District, where Republican Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac faces a rematch with Democrat Jessica King, the deputy mayor of Oshkosh. She lost to Hopper by less than 200 votes in 2008.
_ $3.1 million in the 12th District, where Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover faces tea party organizer Kim Simac. Spending in this north woods district could skyrocket if it becomes the seat that determines which party takes control of the Senate. The election is Aug. 16, the same as the Wirch-Steitz race.
_ $3 million in the 32nd District, where Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse faces Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, also from La Crosse. Democrats are counting on winning this seat.