- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What might have been a quiet race for state-level political office in a region best known for dairy farms has been transformed into a battle more expensive than any Wisconsin residents have seen, with outside groups spending far more so far on nine recall races than they did on all state Senate and Assembly races in the last cycle combined.

A complaint alleging voter suppression also was filed Tuesday.

The imbroglio illustrates the emerging fallout of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling at the state level, where the amount of money that such groups can afford to spend can easily overwhelm candidates’ official messages, and where races undergo little of the disclosure and scrutiny that helps keep national campaigns honest.

The result in this state, which captured national attention during an impasse over collective bargaining for public employees, has been an election hijacked by moneyed outside groups, one out of the control of even the candidates.

“The amount being raised is staggering by Wisconsin standards,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “The candidates can’t get a word in edgewise and are bystanders in their own elections.”

In a realm where no candidate has ever spent more than $722,000, two candidates have spent more than $1 million, registered outside groups have spent $6.1 million as of the latest filing, and groups that don’t have to file disclosures have spent untold more, according to the watchdog group.

“There is a level of vulnerability at the state level that I’m not sure many people are aware of — how inexpensive it is to play politics and have a meaningful impact,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

With outside groups at the helm, the election has taken on an unprecedented tenor of negativity.

“They don’t appear on the ballot, so they’re not accountable in any way. If a candidate takes the low road, they risk a backlash at the polling place, but the interest groups aren’t on the ballot and so they’re not accountable,” Mr. McCabe said. “If you watch the ads most people would conclude none of the candidates have any redeeming qualities.”

‘Nothing illegal’

The vitriol quickly descended into allegations of dirty tricks.

Voters, including pro-choice Democrats, received forms described as absentee ballot requests from both the pro-life Wisconsin Right to Life and, separately, from Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by oil heirs, the Koch brothers. The forms directed that applications for absentee ballots be submitted not to the state clerk, but to a P.O. box listed as the “Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center.”

“That is our post office box, I’m not going to say any more and we’re doing nothing illegal,” said Julaine K. Appling, director of the Wisconsin Family Council, a seemingly separate group, before hanging up.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party filed a complaint against Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin over the flier.

Daniel P. Tokaji, an elections analyst at Ohio State University, examined a copy of the WRTL version. “I can’t tell whether it was intentionally misleading or just incorrect info. It’s very troubling when an outside group is sending out materials that may cause votes to not be counted.”

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