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Area mailboxes are stuffed with campaign fliers as the Aug. 9 recall election pitting incumbent Sen. Dan Kapanke against state Rep. Jennifer Shilling heats up. The race is attracting an unprecedented amount of money from across the country

Thinkstock/La Crosse Tribune photo illustration

All eyes — and wallets — are on La Crosse. Mailboxes are stuffed with campaign fliers. Phones are ringing with pleas for votes. The airwaves are awash in ads. With control of the state Legislature in the balance, money is being spent like never before on a state Senate race.

The Aug. 9 election will be one of nine historic recall votes held this summer — six targeting Republicans, three against Democrats — that resulted from a tumultuous spring when Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through controversial legislation curtailing collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

It pits incumbent Sen. Dan Kapanke against state Rep. Jennifer Shilling and is considered one of three critical races in the Democrats' push to win back a majority in the Senate.

And it's attracting unprecedented money from across the country.

Kapanke has far outraised Shilling head-to-head. But independent groups have poured money into the district, spending nearly 20 to 1 in the Democrat's favor.

Asked this week what they will spend on this election, both candidates answered the same: "too much."

One thing is certain. There will be more money spent on this election than any previous state Senate race. And that's just the candidates.

The real spending comes from independent organizations like We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of union and liberal groups, and the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth.

These groups have so far spent more than $3.2 million, "and the meter is still running," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog organization that tracks election spending and advocates for campaign finance reform.

Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on campaign finance, expects total spending to reach $20 million, with the bulk of it coming from independent groups.

Some of these groups are registered political action committees that report their spending to the state's election board. Others are 501(c)4 nonprofits that aren't required to disclose anything.

The problem, McCabe said, is neither type has to say where their money comes from.

"The public needs to know who's paying for these elections," he said.

Reading the tea leaves

Statewide spending is generally even between the parties, McCabe said, though the GOP has a slight edge on campaigns while Democrats are benefiting from more independent money.

As of last week, when candidates submitted their most recent reports, Shilling had raised a little more than $270,000 to Kapanke's $725,000.

Both campaigns say money continues to pour in. Shilling acknowledges the gap but insists "we won't be out-organized."

Still, the independent money is nearly all on her side, according to the Democracy Campaign's analysis. Of the $640,000 in independent spending in the 32nd District, more than 95 percent has benefited Shilling.

Mayer thinks the relative lack of independent conservative spending could mean those groups have given up on Kapanke, who has trailed in polls. Or it could mean Kapanke has enough money he doesn't need help.

UW-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim says the continued independent spending is an indication of a tightening race.

"Either they have a lot of money or they think there's a reason to put chips on the table," Heim said. "That tells me this is not a done deal."

The stakes are high for both parties.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says the RNC is doing all it can to protect Gov. Scott Walker and incumbent GOP senators targeted for recall from being "hijacked" by state employee unions.

Meanwhile President Barack Obama's campaign organization waded in with emails inviting supporters to a Shilling campaign event this weekend.

So why is there so much money — and attention — focused on a state senate district with just 175,000 people?

For one, Democrats need just three seats to gain control of the Senate, which would allow the party to block Gov. Scott Walker's conservative agenda. And Kapanke, who has won the last two elections by narrow margins, is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans.

Liberal groups see this as an opportunity with national ramifications.

People for the American Way this week rolled out a campaign in three Republican Senate districts, including the 32nd, where the Washington, D.C., group has spent an estimated $32,000.

"Wisconsin is ground zero to stopping the extreme right-wing agenda that's sweeping America," said Randy Borntrager, PFAW's political director. "The eyes of America are watching Wisconsin and taking notice. A resounding victory in Wisconsin will stop the right-wing agenda in its tracks."

Far and away the biggest spender in the 32nd has been We Are Wisconsin, which has pumped in nearly $396,000 to get Shilling elected. That's more than the left-leaning group has spent in any of the nine districts with recalls except for Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf's.

Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political scientist and co-founder of pollster.com, agrees that Wisconsin is a bellwether for a national conservative agenda.

"Both sides see this as a test of a new policy direction of the Republican party nationally. They see broad implications elsewhere," he said. "If (Walker's agenda) succeeds here by not flipping the Senate, it gives a real boost to governors elsewhere to continue to pursue that. If the Senate flips, it's a rebuke of those policies."

UW-Madison's Mayer doesn't think a win by either party will have sweeping ramifications in other states.

"It's the nature of politics that everyone will try to use what happens to their own interest," he said. "The fact that they say it doesn't make it so."

Whatever the stakes, the spending bothers McCabe.

"We've found all the election campaigning is paid for by less than 1 percent of the population," McCabe said. "They are shaping what people think about candidates. It's coming from an incredibly tiny elite portion - it's nothing resembling the voice of the people."

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