Forget opinion polling. Ignore endorsements. Never mind how much money the candidates raise. To see which electoral races are truly competitive, look at where the special interests are putting their money.
Or pouring it, as the case may be.
In Wisconsin, the thirstiest race for independent spending is between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin for the state’s open Senate seat.
The outside money flowing into this race is a moving target, increasing all the time. As of Oct. 9, at midday, the Center for Responsive Politics, using Federal Election Commission data, had tallied $14.5 million in spending on these two candidates by outside groups. That’s up from about $6 million in mid-September.
Of this $14.5 million amount, which doesn’t include some early “issue ad” buys not reported to the FEC, $8 million went to either bash Thompson or back Baldwin and $6.5 million went to blast Baldwin or boost Thompson.
Leading the spending for Thompson are the conservative nonprofits Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. On Baldwin’s side are the political action committee Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Majority PAC. Each has spent more than $2 million — so far.
Do these outside groups really care that deeply about the quality of Wisconsin’s representation in the U.S. Senate? Of course not. They care about the balance of power in Congress.
“The Republicans are clearly trying to take over the U.S. Senate,” says Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “This is one of the seats they think they could flip.”
Both sides have invested heavily in the race, creating a seesaw effect. Thompson emerged from the primary with a 9-point lead, one poll showed. That, Heim says, served as a wake-up call for Baldwin and her backers: “When you’re down 9 points, you’ve got to start spending your cash.”
They did, airing a deluge of ads painting Thompson as a wealthy tool of outside interests. It worked. A subsequent poll showed the advantage had shifted, with Baldwin ahead by 9 points.
“It became clear to national Republicans that Tommy was in trouble,” Heim says. “They realized they had to come to his aid.” They did, and Baldwin’s lead was shaved to 4 points in the latest poll. “The money flowing in on his behalf has helped to make this race competitive.”
Two other state congressional races, both involving Republican incumbents first elected in 2010, have drawn large amounts of outside cash. About $2.4 million has been spent in District 7, where Rep. Sean Duffy is facing former Democratic state Sen. Pat Kreitlow. And the District 8 race between Rep. Reid Ribble and Fox Valley businessman Jamie Wall has drawn $600,000.
“The Republicans are just trying to defend their majority,” Heim says. “If President Obama carries Wisconsin handily, that could pull a congressional seat to the Democratic side.”
Tellingly, none of the six other state congressional races — involving GOP incumbents Tom Petri, James Sensenbrenner and Paul Ryan, Democratic incumbents Gwen Moore and Ron Kind, and the race for Baldwin’s open District 2 seat that will likely go to Democrat Mark Pocan — has drawn more than a drop or two of independent spending.
In Ryan’s District 1 race, that’s surprising, because challenger Rob Zerban has reportedly raised $2 million, a huge amount, and is considered a formidable contender. Heim suspects the GOP’s backers are sitting this one out because Ryan has raised plenty on his own money, about $5 million. But the failure of Democratic groups to assist Zerban may signal a lack of confidence in his candidacy.
“You put your chips on the races that are close,” Heim says. “Neither side has money to spend on people who are going to lose anyway — or people who are going to win anyway.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.