Record-setting money flows to Wisconsin for recall elections to test GOP agenda

Record-breaking donations are pouring into Wisconsin for state Senate recall elections on Tuesday that could help shape the future of the national GOP agenda.

The recall effort was triggered by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s move to sharply curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees in the state. That decision ignited huge protests at the state Capitol this year. But the campaigns are now tackling the issues at the heart of the national Republican political agenda. They include refusing to raise taxes even on corporations and the wealthy for fear of dampening job creation, and relying solely on cuts to government programs to close yawning budget gaps.

Outside groups — led by national unions on the Democratic side and limited government groups such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth on the Republican side — have shoveled more than $25 million into the recall effort, with both sides spending about the same amount. The candidates, meanwhile, have raised more than $5 million.

The staggering dollar amounts being showered on the eight recall campaigns — which after a July 19 election and Tuesday’s six contests will conclude with two elections on Aug. 16 — are shattering state records. In 2010, when the 99-member assembly and half the 33-member state Senate was up for election, outside organizations spent $3.75 million in Wisconsin — 15 percent of this year’s total.

“The spending is so far off the charts. It does not compare to anything we’ve ever seen,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending in the state. “It is an indication of how much things have been stirred up here. Wisconsin has been put on a national stage and it is clear that some groups see these elections as something of a national referendum.”

The stakes could hardly be higher. Democrats and their allies in organized labor are hoping for a net gain of three seats, which would give them control of the state Senate, which, like the assembly, is controlled by Republicans.

“If you were a Republican governor in another state and the Democrats make a big comeback in these elections, it says you might want to slow down a little,” said Joseph Heim, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.

The Democrats also hope a victory would serve as a warning to national Republicans, who they think have overreached in their policy aims. It would also give them momentum in a state crucial to President Obama’s 2012 reelection prospects, while setting the stage for a possible recall of Walker next year.

“These elections are little proxies for what is going to happen for the rest of the country,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40, which represents 32,000 local government workers across Wisconsin.

Republicans and their supporters, meanwhile, would read a Democratic inability to recapture the state Senate as an endorsement of the policies pursued by Walker and other GOP governors.

Walker has supported legislation cutting Medicaid, slashing state education aid, and requiring voters to show identification at the polls. He also has refused to raise taxes to close budget gaps, which has become a policy pillar for GOP lawmakers in Congress, as well as Republican governors and legislators in cash-strapped states including Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The elections “will determine whether the good news keeps coming, or whether Walker’s limited-government agenda will itself be limited to what we’ve seen so far,” read a post on the Wisconsin Club for Growth blog.

Both sides are cautious about their chances. Walker says sharply curtailing collective bargaining for most state public employees is essential to keeping government spending in check. But he acknowledges being surprised by the public outcry over the move, which he made soon after taking office in January, and has said he would feel more confident of a GOP victory if the recall elections came later.

Meanwhile, We Are Wisconsin, a union-led coalition that is spearheading the Republican recall effort, said it is “cautiously optimistic” about its chances of retaking the Senate. The group noted that in 2008, despite a Democratic surge that delivered Obama an easy victory in Wisconsin, those Republicans managed to win their races.

The coalition said the recall effort may well turn on two contests that polls show are virtual dead heats.

“Predictions of victory at this point are beyond premature — they’re dangerous,” read a memo sent to senior staff members of We Are Wisconsin.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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