One TV ad criticizes a Democratic candidate's driving record ending with dash-cam video of him running a red light and striking a bicyclist. Another says a GOP senator favors and end to Medicare as we know it. A Democratic candidate is criticized for supporting taxpayers picking up the tab for Viagra. And a GOP Senate hopeful is called out for supporting tax cuts for big corporations and rich people.
The fight over collective bargaining that threw Wisconsin into political chaos in February and ignited efforts to recall nine state senators, but when it comes to the actual campaigns being waged this summer, "union" is a dirty word on both sides. Republicans and Democrats, along with national conservative groups and unions, are steering clear of the battle over union rights in the millions being spent through television ads, mailers and other messaging in the races.
The recalls instead are being cast by those on the left as a referendum on the Republican agenda and, in particular, Gov. Scott Walker. National unions are pouring millions of dollars, as well as campaign workers and volunteers, into Wisconsin to influence the elections, test their themes and gain momentum heading into 2012.
Republicans and conservative groups like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity are defending the record of the targeted incumbents and using Wisconsin as the test case for the conservative agenda. A win here in the recalls would set the stage, they hope, for more GOP success heading into the presidential election year.
Largely ignoring the union fight that actually spurred the recalls and made Wisconsin the center of the national debate over union rights earlier this year shows that neither side thinks voters will be moved by that issue, said Mike McCabe, director of the watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which also tracks campaign spending.
"People who are really anti-union have made up their minds and those who are really ticked off by the collective bargaining bill have made up their minds," McCabe said.
Democrats don't need to convince, or remind, pro-union voters about what caused the recalls, said John Hogan, the Republican operative in charge of GOP efforts in the recalls. The fact that the campaigns are not touching on the issue leading up to the Aug. 9 and Aug. 16 elections also shows that it probably didn't poll well with independents or undecided voters, Hogan said.
"The Democrats are realizing that the chaos we saw in Madison doesn't sit well with voters and they don't want to drum that up again," Hogan said. "This is a bait and switch by the Democratic Party."
Scot Ross, a liberal muckraker for the advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, agreed that voters have already made up their minds on the union issues so it doesn't make much sense to bring it up during the campaign.
The real issues at play are broader than that and involve the attack on unions and other issues backed by Republicans this year including the budget cuts to education, tax breaks benefiting the poor and health care, Ross said.
"It's all about which side are you on," he said.
Despite isolated references to the union fight, the ads have mostly attacked Republicans for their support of Walker's budget and its cuts to education while the Democrats have been derided for past votes to raise taxes and their management of the state when they had majority control of the Legislature.
Walker, who's quietly been raising money for the Republicans but largely avoided high profile campaign appearances, sent a fundraising plea on Tuesday that referenced the union vote. He called the targeted Republican senators brave and said they "stood up to the public employee union bosses and did the right thing."
More than 50 political action committees and independent groups are spending millions trying to influence the few haven't yet made up their minds.
Those groups have already collectively spent more than $3.2 million, with more than $2.6 million of that coming from the pro-union coalition We Are Wisconsin. Total spending by outside groups and candidates will top $10 million and could reach $20 million, McCabe said. Another watchdog group, Common Cause of Wisconsin, predicted spending could reach as high as $30 million.
We Are Wisconsin includes national unions AFSCME, the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association. It has been blanketing the airwaves in recent weeks with attack ads against incumbent Republicans.
One of the nine recalls has already been decided. Democratic incumbent Sen. Dave Hansen easily defeated his Republican challenger on July 19 with 66 percent of the vote. The Republican in the race never overcame his criminal background and lack of financial support.
The real test is next month. The six Republican incumbents face Aug. 9 elections, with two Democratic incumbents on the ballot a week later.
Democrats need to win five of the remaining eight elections to take over majority control of the Senate and be able to block Walker and the Republican agenda.
Sens. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse are generally seen as the two most vulnerable incumbents, with Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin targeted by Republicans. The GOP is also fiercely defending seats held by incumbent Sens. Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen and Alberta Darling.
Who controls the Senate will likely be determined by the winners in those three races.
Television spending is particularly hot in the Olsen race. As of July 22, conservative groups Club for Growth and Wisconsin Family Action had spent $415,000 on attack ads against his Democratic challenger Rep. Fred Clark, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Over that same period, the pro-union We Are Wisconsin spent about half that much attacking Olsen.
Ken Goldstein, director of CMAG, said both sides were spending furiously on television ads in expensive markets that don't even reach many voters in the affected districts because there's no roadmap to victory for unprecedented recall campaigns in the middle of the summer.
"When the stakes are so high and money's available, maybe you don't worry about efficiency," Goldstein said.
President Barack Obama's political arm of the Democratic National Committee is also organizing campaign workers. Obama's Organizing for America is organizing volunteers and providing other support to Democrats in the recall elections, although it has not yet spent any money on advertising. The group was also involved in helping to organize the protests in February and March against Walker's union proposal.
The Republican National Committee is lending all the support it can to protect Walker and the Republican incumbents, said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
"As we look forward to 2012, Wisconsin is a battleground state and this is the first fight out there without a doubt," said Rick Wiley, political director for the RNC.
Goldstein has a blunt assessment of how Republicans and Democrats are approaching the recalls: "Both sides are equally terrified."