Jennifer Shilling state senate campaign
Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) by Jennifer Wieman

Democrats are crying foul over an ad by a conservative political group that rips Rep. Jennifer Shilling — not for overspending, but for cutting.

The ad sponsored by the Wisconsin Club for Growth accuses Shilling, D-La Crosse, of cutting money for education and SeniorCare, a popular prescription drug assistance program, while supporting pork barrel projects.

It’s an ad that’s prompted head scratching in a race where Shilling, a liberal, has criticized her opponent for supporting a GOP budget that included much larger cuts to education and social services.

Shilling is challenging Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, in a summer recall election expected to be a referendum on his vote to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers as well as support for Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative agenda.

Specifically, the ad says Shilling voted to cut nearly $300 million from school funding as well as cuts to Medical Assistance and SeniorCare while supporting $37 million in earmarks.

The criticisms stem from the last biennial budget, approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2009, and are factual. School aid was cut by $284.4 million, and SeniorCare by about $162.6 million.

Shilling, however, objects to the characterization that she cut SeniorCare, saying the vote simply brought the budget into line with program costs that dropped because of declining enrollment, lower costs and higher program revenue.

“It was fully funded,” she said. “No seniors saw benefits reduced.”

Beth Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services, confirmed that SeniorCare benefits and eligibility didn’t change as a result of the funding reduction.

Club for Growth, which has purchased more than $62,000 of air time on La Crosse TV stations, stands behind the ad.

“That doesn’t change the fact that they cut funding for the program,” said adviser Deb Jordahl.

Shilling calls the ad “the height of hypocrisy” coming just as the Republican-led Legislature passed a budget that cuts school funding by $1.6 billion — a budget she voted against.

“I think those dramatic cuts are pretty fresh in people’s minds,” she said.

The state Democratic Party has called on the Club for Growth to pull the ad, along with a similar one targeting Rep. Fred Clark, another Democrat challenging a Republican senator in summer recall elections.

Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate called the ads a deliberate distortion and said the party is exploring options for stopping the ads. He said the party would likely send letters this week asking the stations to pull them.

“This false attack exposes how concerned Republicans are about losing the majority in the senate,” Tate said. “I can only imagine how desperate they’re going to be in the weeks to come.”

Club for Growth says the critique is fair because the Democratic budget cut programs without reducing overall spending or lowering taxes.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” said club adviser R.J. Johnson.

Still, the ad has puzzled some political observers.

“It’s almost bizarre,” said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim, who added it might sway casual voters unfamiliar with Shilling, but for those who know her it’s discordant with her reputation.

The strategy, he suggests, is more likely a preemptive strike designed to soften the impact of budget-slashing accusations against Kapanke.

“I think it’s an inoculation ad,” he said. “It makes it more difficult to attack Dan on the same stuff.”

Shilling called it “dirty” politics.

“The voters recognize smear. The voters recognize distortion,” she said. “I’m confident they will see through these tactics.”

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