Three things are obvious from the ad wars that are quickly escalating in Wisconsin’s recall elections.
One: They will be very, very expensive.
Spending on broadcast TV for just one race — the northwestern Wisconsin seat now held by Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls — has totaled roughly three-quarters of a million dollars in recent weeks, according to estimates by CMAG, the national firm that tracks campaign spots.
“We are in uncharted territory,” says political scientist and CMAG president Ken Goldstein, referring to the unusual dynamics of these legislative races: mid-summer, stand-alone, quasi-nationalized elections in which nobody is quite sure who will vote and how big the electorate will be.
Some insiders expect combined spending of all kinds to top $20 million for the nine recall elections, much of it outside money, much of it undisclosed.
Two: The recall campaigns have branched out into issues far beyond the fight over collective bargaining that sparked them.
The ads that have aired in recent weeks have delved into candidates’ personal histories, gaffes and legal problems, into the broader battle over the state budget, and into federal issues like Medicare.
Gov. Walker’s push against collective bargaining for public employees is mostly absent from the broadcast advertising, either because strategists believe most voters have made up their mind about that issue or because they think other messages are more effective.
“We had all this drama about collective bargaining, but what is driving the advertising is fairly straightforward messaging about taxes and spending,” says Goldstein, a longtime University of Wisconsin-Madison professor. “Democrats are criticizing Republicans for cutting education, and Republicans are criticizing Democrats for raising taxes and being fiscally irresponsible. And both are criticizing each other for any personal failing they can find.”
Democrats and labor have sought to nationalize these races in one big way, airing ads portraying Republican state lawmakers as supporters of the Medicare overhaul proposed by Janesville Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.
As of last week, groups and candidates on the Democratic side had outspent those on the Republican side by almost 2-to-1 on broadcast television in the state’s biggest TV markets, according to CMAG.
But the heaviest spending is yet to come, and some Republican incumbents, like well-funded GOP state Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, have yet to go up on TV.
Three: The recall elections have become a Mecca for independent spending and fundraising by national groups. “Outside” groups are vastly outspending the candidates on TV. That’s a reflection of the big national stakes in these races — as both sides test campaign themes and seek momentum heading into the 2012 election year — and the huge consequences for Wisconsin, with the GOP’s undivided control of state government in the balance.
It’s also a reflection of the fact that groups are more loosely regulated than candidates when it comes to political spending. Depending on their legal structure and the kinds of ads they run, some organizations can take unlimited, undisclosed contributions.
Of the big-market broadcast ads tracked by CMAG, more than 80% have been aired so far by groups, not candidates.
The biggest spenders?
On the left, the labor coalition, We Are Wisconsin, which had spent more than $400,000 on Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison and Minneapolis TV in recent weeks, according to CMAG estimates.
On the right, the Wisconsin Chapter of the Club for Growth, which had spent more than $300,000 on Milwaukee, Green Bay and Minneapolis TV since June.
The CMAG data doesn’t include local cable spots or most broadcast ads aired in smaller markets such as Wausau and La Crosse. And TV accounts for just one portion of the total cost of these races. Both sides are spending heavily on other activities such as mail.
But because it’s the easiest kind of campaign spending to track, the ad wars are the best window into how both sides see these races developing.
Democrats need a net pick-up of three seats to take back the state Senate. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse and Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac are widely seen as the two most vulnerable Republicans.
But to tip control of the Senate, Democrats need to defeat a third Republican incumbent from among Harsdorf, Darling, Luther Olsen of Ripon and Rob Cowles of Green Bay.
Of those four, Harsdorf has been the biggest target so far of Democratic ad spending. Virtually all the broadcast spending in her race has been done by four groups, two on the Democratic side (Emily’s List and We Are Wisconsin) and two on the Republican side (Club for Growth and another rather secretive group called Citizens for a Stronger America).
In order to reach voters on broadcast TV in that district, these groups have taken the costly step of advertising on Twin Cities television. It’s costly because Minneapolis-St. Paul is a large and expensive TV market, where only 5% of the population actually lives in Harsdorf’s 10th Wisconsin Senate district.
“They are spending money on a TV station where the overwhelming majority of people who will see the ads not only are not in the district, but aren’t even in the state,” says Goldstein. “When the stakes are this high, they are obviously not worried about efficiency.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have a two-pronged approach for minimizing their losses. One is to knock off one of the three Democratic senators facing recall challenges, with Jim Holperin of Conover the party’s top target. The other is to aggressively go after Democratic challengers to Harsdorf, Olsen and Darling. In those three races, more than half the broadcast ads aired by GOP groups have been against Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo, Olsen’s Democratic opponent.
Because of the way they’re structured, the most active conservative groups in recent weeks — Club for Growth and Citizens for a Stronger America — don’t report either their spending or their contributions to the state.
The most active advertisers on the Democratic side so far — We Are Wisconsin, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List — do report. Combined, those groups have spent more than $1 million on TV ads so far, according to their state election filings, with Harsdorf and Kapanke their top targets.
Some of the nine individual races could approach or top the unofficial record for total spending on a state legislative contest in Wisconsin: the $3 million that the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates was spent in Harsdorf’s district in 2000.No More Stolen ElectionsWisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveNo More Stolen ElectionsWisconsin Wave