A watchdog group estimates money spent in the recall election that involved state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, broke the previous record for money spent on a Wisconsin state Senate race.
The non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says spending by candidates and interest groups in five of the recent nine recall elections topped the old record of $3 million, set in 2000. The group estimates the race between Olsen and Clark was the second highest, with about $6.5 million spent.
About $40 million was spent on all of this summer's recall elections, the group says.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported this week that - based on WDC's estimates - somewhere between $45 and $52 was spent for each of the roughly 769,000 votes cast in the eight primary and nine general elections.
There were more than 73,000 votes cast in the 14th Senate District primary and general elections, according to unofficial results from the state's Government Accountability Board. That breaks down to about $89 dollars per vote.
"I was surprised that the 14th district race ended up being one of the most expensive," said Mike McCabe, WDC's executive director.
Democrats needed to flip three of the nine seats to take control of the senate. They only flipped two, and Olsen was one of four Republicans and three Democrats that fought back a recall effort.
McCabe said it's likely that interest groups - which he said outspent candidates at least 5-1 - felt Republican Sens. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, and Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, were the most vulnerable. That may have led the groups to spend more on the attempts to oust Olsen and Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who teetered on the edge of recall.
"Those turned out to be the two where Republicans really had to survive a scare and I think the interest groups sensed that," McCabe said.
Kapanke and Hopper lost their seats. Olsen and Darling narrowly held on to theirs, and so did Republican Sens. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay. Sens. Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, and Jim Holperin, D-Conover, also fought back recall attempts.
Clark's campaign spent about $240,000 and Olsen's spent just more than $100,000. That means interest groups accounted for about 95 percent of the spending in that race. McCabe said although final numbers have not been compiled, it appears interest group spending in that race was roughly a 50/50 split between those that supported Clark and those that supported Olsen.
"There's no question that Wisconsin needs a totally new approach to election spending," McCabe said, adding that the attack ads in the 14th district race offered voters a distorted view of both candidates. "If you actually know Luther Olsen and Fred Clark, you know they are mild mannered guys. I think people watch all these interest group ads and they really don't know who the candidates are."
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