Walker, Special Interests Going All Out in Battle for Airwaves
Nearly $3 million has been spent thus far in the Milwaukee market alone on ads by Democratic recall challengers, governor trying to keep his office, and the special interests trying to sway the vote.
UPDATED 8:45 a.m. April 26: For this story reviewing of records occurred through April 20. Since then, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has purchased an undetermined amount of advertisements at Milwaukee area TV stations.
It’s quickly becoming just another part of summer and spring in Wisconsin — TV airwaves cluttered with political ads trying to sway the voting masses in a particular direction, and huge amounts of money flowing in.
Last summer's high-stakes state Senate recall elections saw an unprecedented amount of money spent on TV ads, and experts say we can expect much of the same in the state's gubernatorial recall elections.
"Spending will no doubt far exceed spending on TV this year compared to last summer's slate of Senate recalls," said Doug Hill, of the Madison-based political consulting firm Marks and Hill. Hill's firm produced the TV ads for Democratic recall candidate and Secretary of State Doug La Follette.
Special-interest groups are pouring money into the Milwaukee media market and Gov. Scott Walker isn't being shy about reaching into his vast war chest and getting his message out to the electorate.
With the Republican governor in the battle of his political career, it’s no wonder.
Patch's review of public records at the four major Milwaukee TV stations — WTMJ (Channel 4), WITI (Channel 6), WISN (Channel 12) and WDJT (Channel 58) — shows that about $2.8 million has been spent on TV ads since Jan. 1. Records at Channel 58 also include those ads aired on its sister stations, WMLW and MeTV.
And most of that money has been spent by outside groups, not the candidates.
For example, the political action committee Right Direction Wisconsin — an arm of the Republican Governors Association — has spent nearly $1 million on ads in the state's largest TV market.
But Walker is close behind — spending about $839,000 on ads so far.
Four Democrats are set to skirmish on May 8 for a chance to challenge for the state’s top office. While Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has yet to spend a dime in Milwaukee, his main challenger, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and the labor groups backing her have dumped nearly $550,000 on TV ads here.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) and Secretary of State Doug La Follette are also in the Democratic primary, but haven’t purchased ads in Milwaukee. However, Hariprasad Trivedi, a physician from Brookfield running as an independent, purchased about $20,000 in spots that ran during the Super Bowl in January and continued until April 22.
Special interests dominating Milwaukee TV
Right Direction Wisconsin is outspending everyone in the Milwaukee market and currently running two ads on TV.
The group is also running an ad using the metaphor of an elevator to symbolize what the group says both Democrats have done in their respective positions — increased spending, taxes saw the unemployment rate raise and sustained a stale economy.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political group backed by David and Charles Koch, has spent about $340,000 in the Milwaukee market on ads touting Walker's reforms, which the group says are working.
A group called the Center for Union Facts also is running ads in Milwaukee attacking public labor unions, although the ads don't mention any candidates. The group has purchased $150,000 in TV spots.
WisPolitics' Ad Watch shows advertisements galore purchased outside the Milwaukee market, by both sides.
Barrett quiet in Milwaukee
Many political observers see Barrett as the Democrat with the best chance of beating Walker in the June 5 general election — and that's backed up by recent polls.
Charles Franklin, a visiting law professor at the Marquette University and expert in statistical methods, elections and public opinion, speculated that Barrett has yet to air ads in Milwaukee because he's well known in the area and is saving his fundraising dough for the June election.
Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak declined to comment on why the campaign hasn't purchased ads because "we don't comment on our campaign strategy."
"We don't want to give our opponents any insight into our plans," he said.
Do ads actually sway votes?
While Barrett ads aren't airing in Milwaukee, he has spent money outside the big city, including ads in which state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) endorses him. Barrett also runs ads promising to end the state's civil war over divisive politics.
With polling showing that about 20 percent of Democratic voters are still undecided in whom they would chose to challenge Walker, Franklin said the TV ads leading up to the primary are much more important than the general election.
"With the short time frame between the primary and the general election, the Democrats have a fairly limited amount of time to build name recognition," Franklin said. "The ads over the next few weeks will prove more important than the ones leading up the general election.
"Voters have had 16 months to decide how they feel about Scott Walker and we see a very low-percentage of undecided voters in the general election," he added.
Hill added that all the Democratic candidates are seeking to gain better name recognition outside their respective districts and cities they represent.
"Barrett probably has 100 percent name recognition in Milwaukee, and same for Falk in Madison and Vinehout in Eau Claire, so it's vital that the candidates start to expose themselves to the rest of the state," Hill said.
Hill said the TV game remains the go-to medium for candidates to get their message out. It's the easiest way to reach the largest audience.
Franklin noted, however, that TV shouldn't be the be-all and end-all for campaign strategy.
"Research has shown television ads make a few percentage difference in the scheme of things," he said. "Given that any campaign that has ever existed has run TV ads, they are convinced of their importance."
Franklin added in a state that is so divided and with turnout expected to be high, the ground game, the phone calls, door-to-door contact and get-out-the-vote events have to be apart of any successful campaign.
'Wisconsin for Falk' vanishes
A coalition of labor groups that have handpicked Falk as their candidate to defeat Walker have put up thousands in Milwaukee and an estimated $3 million statewide on TV ads and "slick fliers" pushing their campaign, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice.
Then the coalition's TV spots ceased, Bice writes.
The group told the newspaper Sunday it plans to have ads running again this week.
Meanwhile, Falk's campaign announced Tuesday it was releasing a new TV ad focusing on "her leadership and how she has built the broad grassroots support needed to defeat Gov. Scott Walker.
Falk spokesman Scot Ross said she has a strong grassroots movement across the state, but TV ads are an important part of their campaign strategy.
"Scott Walker is going to spend more money than any candidate in the history of the state," Ross said.
Walker's vast war chest
Those numbers, though, pale in comparison with how much the incumbent has taken in.
With no limits on how much his campaign can raise, Walker has taken in $12.1 million and spent $9.8 million as of January, according to the campaign finance watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Walker started his TV campaign early in the recall process, before signatures were submitted and verified. Before the new year started, he had already spent $2 million on the air, including ad buys that hadn't aired yet.
A Walker spokesman couldn't be reached for comment on the governor's ad spends.
Patch reporter Rory Linnane contributed to this report.