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Y! Big Story: Election race budget-busters

As Wisconsin marked a defining moment in Mitt Romney's quest for the Republican presidential nomination, the Badger State might well be noted for another hot-button issue: record campaign spending.

Just two years ago, in a season that cost about $3.65 billion, the most expensive votes belonged to a California gubernatorial race and two Senate races (Connecticut and Nevada). This year, more dollars per vote may be spent in Wisconsin, not so much on a race, but a recall.

Most expensive recall: Ironically, a contest to remove someone from office may be more costly than putting someone in the Oval Office. The recall effort over Gov. Scott Walker, which catapulted after he targeted collective bargaining power, has been pitched as a battle of workers' rights vs. political intimidation. The recall election has stolen the spotlight from this year's gubernatorial races.

All told, the two sides spent some $44 million last year for or against the recall efforts there, according to the nonpartisan political-finance watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and that may be a low estimate, said director Mike McCabe. This year, recall spending could reach $60 million, according to people on both sides of the fight.

Interest groups, many from outside the state, now account for six of every seven traceable dollars spent on the recalls. (Wall Street Journal)

Here's some fanciful math to ponder: The voting-age population of Wisconsin is about 4.4 million. The estimated number of eligible U.S. voters number is around 229.7 million.  The running tally on the presidential contest comes to $330 million (an estimate courtesy by the New York Times), and let's just arbitrarily double that. That would roughly work out to be about $2.87 per U.S. voter vs. $13.63 per Wisconsin voter, if we take that $60 mil estimate.

Wisconsin's recall vote comes June 5.

Most expensive congressional races: The Center for Responsive Politics tracks the most expensive races on OpenSecrets.org by money raised and spent. Leading the nation is Massachusetts, "currently the most expensive Senate race in the country." Elizabeth Warren—whose last political post was interim head for the Consumer Protection Agency— is challenging Sen. Scott Brown for the seat once held by Ted Kennedy. Bets had been on that their election would be the "most expensive contest in the history of Congress," beating the famed Hillary Clinton-Rep. Rick Lazio $70 million bout in the 2000 New York Senate race. Certainly this race may rank among those with the most colorful lingo: Warren calls her fundraising the Money Bomb, while Brown's old Tufts University fraternity hosts "Brothers Helping Brothers" receptions. Both Warren and Brown, however, signed a People's Pledge promising to limit the intake of outside funds.

Under the deal, Brown and Warren pledged to pay a penalty of 50 percent of the cost of any TV or Internet advertising by an outside group, regardless of whether the ad is aimed at supporting themselves or attacking the other candidate. The money would be given to a charity of the opposing candidate's choice. (Washington Post)

That pledge may help limit the record to just the "costliest campaign in state history." (So far Brown has donated twice to charities of Warren's choice.)

Texas ranks next in the big political bucks. This time, there's no incumbent (Kay Hutchinson is retiring), 10 candidates crowd the slate, and redistricting disagreements have delayed the primary to May 29, with a runoff on July 31.

A San Antonio court pushed Texas' primary back to May 29 from March 6 after complaints that a new electoral map drawn by Republicans violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of blacks and Latinos.

Three of Texas' four new U.S. House seats were created in areas dominated by whites, even though Hispanics and blacks accounted for 90 percent of Texas' population growth since 2000. (Reuters)

Ohio presents two very different scenarios. Speaker of the House John Boehner faced a tea party candidate whose main focus was exposing the "abortion holocaust." Most of Boehner's funds have comfortably gone into the National Republican Congressional Committee, to bolster Republican congressional presence overall. In the Senate race, state treasurer and rising star Josh Mandel and incumbent Sherrod Brown are in a cage match. The latest round was when Mandel staffers physically rebuffed Brown videographers, aka "trackers," from filming a public event. The Mandel campaign dismissed overtures to create "ground rules" from Brown's staffers and accused them of deliberate disruption.

More races:

Most expensive congressional races, ranked by amount spent (OpenSecrets.org)
Race Candidates (incumbent v. challenger, links to campaign site whenever possible) Spent Raised
Minnesota District 6 (House) Michele Bachmann (R) v. Brian Goldrick (DFL) v. Anne Nolan (DFL) $13,500,557 $12,055,855
Massachusetts Senate Scott Brown (R) v. Elizabeth Warren (D) $10,692,073 $22,726,866
Texas Senate (open seat) (R): Glenn Addison, Joe Agris, Curt Cleaver, Ted Cruz, David Dewhurst, Ben Gambini, Charles Holcomb, Craig James, Tom Leppert, Lela Pittenger. (D): Paul Sadler, Addie Allen, Sean Hubbard, Grady Yarbrough $8,690,310 $19,572,266
Ohio District 8 (House) John Boehner (R) vs. David Lewis (R, tea party) $8,292,671 $12,952,459
Ohio Senate Sherrod Brown (D) v. Josh Mandel (R) $6,991,363 $16,295,664
Florida Senate Bill Nelson (D) v. Marco Rubio (R) $6,777,010 $17,039,272
Pennsylvania Senate Bob Casey (D) v. Joseph Vodvarka (D), David Christian (R), John Kensinger (R), Sam Rohrer (R), Marc Scaringi (R), Steve Welch (R), Tom Smith (R) (primary April 24) $4,886,214 $15,157,562
New York District 27 (House) Brian Higgins (D) $4,588,141 $5,167,303
Florida District 18 (House) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) (running due to redistricting) $3,647,137 $7,210,565
Oregon District 01 (special election) (open seat) Suzanne Bonamici (D) v. Rob Cornilles (R) $3,643,079 $3,810,669

Presidential dollar bills. No surprise, the presidential race leads campaign spenders. Obama has been Daddy Sawbucks.

Obama has spent more than $135 million—more than GOP challengers Romney and Rick Santorum combined—on his re-election apparatus, according to an Associated Press analysis of Federal Election Commission records. That sets up his campaign to be larger and geographically more diverse than any of his opponents' organizations.

Outside spending on the presidential campaign has gone over the $100 million mark. (AP)

While the president has tapped into the grassroots strategy of his candidate days, super PAC donations have swelled Obama's funds as well as those of his GOP challengers.

Outside groups, including super PACs and nonprofit organizations, have spent almost four times more on the 2012 presidential campaign than comparable organizations spent at the same point in the 2008 cycle, an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings show.

... The 2012 Republican nomination contest is the first presidential campaign to be conducted after a series of court decisions unraveled the rules governing fundraising by outside groups. Some 104 organizations, including labor groups, nonprofits and corporations, have emerged as the heavyweight spenders of this primary and caucus season. Unlike in past presidential election cycles, they are able to collect money in unlimited amounts and to use it to advocate explicitly for or against a candidate for the White House in television and radio advertisements, phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts. (Sunlight Foundation)

[Related: What super PACs are pumping up presidential hopefuls]

What is Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission: The flush of money has been squarely tied to the January 2010 ruling, in which the Supreme Court allowed issues-oriented groups. Before then, federal law—passed during the Watergate era—prohibited corporations and unions to spend in "electioneering communication." Now most observers agree the ruling has made spending run amok.

In fact, in some respects, they overshadow the campaigns. The super PACs promoting the four remaining Republican presidential contenders raised more money in January than the campaigns themselves did. They also have more cash on hand, and less debt.

... Almost all that money goes toward negative advertisements, notes [Anthony Corrado of Colby College], and whereas almost all of it used to be devoted to the general election, some is now seeping into primaries. The result, he says, will be to further polarise politics. Parties are keen to build majorities, after all, so are relatively tolerant of the occasional ideological lapse; outside groups are not. (The Economist)

Besides the flood of money, objections center around how substantial amounts come from a concentrated number of wealthy donors.

The top 100 individual super PAC donors make up just 3.7% of those who have contributed to the new money vehicles, but account for more than 80% of the total money raised, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. (CNN/Money)

Another concern centers around disclosure, as donors can hide more easily in a PAC. A recent March 31 U.S. district judge ruling, however, makes anonymity more difficult. Whatever efforts to challenge Citizen United, though, won't be in time to turn off the spending spigot in 2012.

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