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Record election spending brings little change

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

By Bill Lueders

Tuesday’s election was as exhausting as it was astonishing, especially when viewed from the new Ground Zero for American elections — the intersection of Money and Politics.

Records were broken, along with some hearts. Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state was reaffirmed in thousands of 30-second increments. The money flowed fast and furious.

Yet all this spending brought little change.

Wisconsin again voted Democratic in a presidential sweepstakes won by Democrat Barack Obama (with an assist from Bruce Springsteen). The state elected a Democratic U.S. senator to replace one who retired, and ended up with the same ratio of five Republicans and three Democrats in the House.

Republicans retained the state Assembly and regained the Senate, after a June recall election that left Gov. Scott Walker in power. This restores the political balance in place before an estimated $137 million was spent on the state’s 15 recall elections during the past two years. Dems controlled the Senate for just a few months, when the Legislature was not in session.

Still, it was an election that delivered sound and fury like none other the state has seen.

According to the National Journal, Wisconsin was hit with $45 million in presidential TV ads, about two-thirds backing Mitt Romney. That compares to a mere $23.6 million spent here in the 2008 presidential race, as reported by CNN.

Wisconsin saw its costliest U.S. Senate race in its history, topping the $70 million mark. When the previous record was set, way back in 2010, most of the $38 million that was spent came from the candidates, Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican Ron Johnson. This time around, outside groups dumped $45 million into the race, on top of about $28 million spent by candidates through Oct. 17.

Around 87 percent of this outside money went to oppose Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the victor, or Republican Tommy Thompson, split almost evenly between them. About a third flowed from super PACs, “independent” entities which can accept unlimited sums; another third was from 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations, which don’t have to disclose who gives them money.

Meanwhile, the District 7 congressional race between Republican incumbent Sean Duffy and Democratic challenger Pat Kreitlow drew $4.7 million in outside cash. That tops the $3.8 million spent in the same district in 2010, when Duffy defeated Democrat Julie Lassa.

And the candidates for District 1, Republican incumbent Paul Ryan and Democratic challenger Rob Zerban, reported spending $6.5 million through Oct. 17, with Ryan accounting for $5 million. That breaks the record for candidate spending in a Wisconsin congressional race set in 2006, when Democrat Steve Kagen and Republican John Gard spent $6 million vying for an open seat.

Both Duffy and Ryan held onto their seats, although Ryan would have preferred not to need his. (Had he become vice president, a special election would have been held.)

In the Legislature, $8 million was spent by various candidates through Oct. 22; this does not include spending by outside groups.

Based on unofficial results with a few close races, the Republicans are poised to keep a commanding lead in the state Assembly, 60 to 39 seats. (It had been 59-39 with one independent.) And they’ve reclaimed the state Senate 17-15, pending a December special election in a safely Republican seat that likely will extend that advantage to 18-15.

In the northern Wisconsin Senate district formerly held by Democrat Jim Holperin, who won a hotly contested recall race in 2011 only to decide against seeking re-election, Republican Tom Tiffany won easily. Through Oct. 22, Tiffany outspent Democrat Susan Sommer $174,268 to $29,788.

And in the state Senate district that includes Oshkosh, one of three the Dems clinched in the recalls, Republican Rick Gudex bumped off Democrat Jessica King. Gudex outspent King $239,269 to $143,136, through Oct. 22.

Money might have made the difference in these elections. It also made a lot of noise, still ringing in our ears.

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