By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A deluge of political advertising in Wisconsin this summer to sway the largest wave of special state elections in U.S. history may be a harbinger of the partisan onslaught expected in the 2012 national elections.
About 50 outside groups have so far spent between $5 and $6 million in TV, radio and direct mail advertising to influence whether Republicans or Democrats control a majority in the Wisconsin state Senate, according to Mike McCabe, who tracks campaign finance as head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
That is in addition to the more than $3 million that the candidates themselves have spent so far on the recall campaigns, according to their financial disclosures, which are often several weeks behind.
"There have been a lot of very, very large media buys," said John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, "and a ton of money has been flowing in from out of state."
Outraged when Republicans passed a law to curb public sector union power in March, labor unions and supporters launched the Wisconsin recall effort. Conservative groups responded by launching recalls against Democrats.
In all, nine state Senators face recall in Wisconsin -- six Republicans and three Democrats -- the biggest such effort in the nation's history. Democrats also want to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker over the union law, but he is not eligible until next year.
Officially registered lobbying groups say they have spent about $3.2 million so far in the recalls.
"The rest of the spending has been done by unregistered groups and is my estimate based on what we know about the advertising they are sponsoring," McCabe told Reuters.
The ads are impossible to avoid for anyone spending time in Wisconsin, and may provide a glimpse of the national ads likely to be aired next year. Then, lawmakers now battling over the budget in Washington including President Barack Obama and most of Congress, will be on the ballot.
One Wisconsin ad, paid for by a group called The Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, links the recalls to the national elections next year.
"Governor Walker and Republicans are providing the adult leadership Wisconsin needs to restore fiscal responsibility to the Badger State," it says.
Then, the background music turn menacing and the narrator continues. "But Barack Obama's political allies, including MoveOn.org, are spending millions to block these important reforms. Now they're even trying to recall the Republican senators who stayed in Madison and did their jobs well. Tell Barack Obama and his liberal hacks we reject their unhelpful intervention."
In what is shaping up to be the closest recall race, and the one where candidates have spent the most money so far, incumbent Republican state Senator Alberta Darling will defend her seat from challenger Sandy Pasch, a Democratic state assembly member.
Typical is an ad sponsored by the We Are Wisconsin Political Action Committee against Darling, who represents Walker's home district.
It features children reciting a list of anti-education measures that Darling is alleged to have supported. The tagline, read by a child, is: "Tax breaks for corporations over education. You've failed us, Senator Darling."
Another, targeting Republican Sheila Harsdorf, ends with the line: "Sheila Harsdorf's just not on our side, not anymore."
The six Republicans will face voters in recalls scheduled for August 9. Two Democrats will defend their seats in recalls scheduled for August 16.
A third Democrat targeted for recall, Dave Hansen of Green Bay, easily defended his seat in the first recall earlier this month.
The anti-union measure was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in March and triggered the biggest opposition demonstrations in the state since the Vietnam War.
The debate over the measure in Wisconsin is in some respects similar to that playing out in Washington. Republicans in Wisconsin said spending had to be cut to balance the budget and passed the union measure to force workers such as teachers to pay more for benefits and to hold the line on salaries. Democrats fiercely fought the cuts and even challenged them in court.
Democrats need a net gain of three seats in the recall elections to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans, who will still control the state Assembly.
(Editing by Greg McCune)