By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Wisconsin may be poised to set a state campaign spending record with interest group money flowing even before officials approve any recall elections that could decide control of the state Senate.
Wisconsin has had four recall elections in its history, never more than one in any year, but eight state senators could be forced back to the polls in 2011 under petitions already filed with the state's Government Accountability Board.
The recall efforts are the latest phase in a heated battle between pro-union Democrats and newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker over his efforts to roll back the powers of state public sector unions this year.
"My guess is we will see ungodly sums of money spent in these races and I wouldn't be surprised if a record fell," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan group that tracks political spending and lobbies for campaign finance reform.
So far, challengers have filed petitions with thousands of signatures seeking to force recall elections on eight state senators: five Republicans and three Democrats.
Democrats need to pick up three seats to take control of the state Senate and put up barriers to Walker's agenda.
The Wisconsin record for spending on a single legislative race, $3 million, was set in 2000 when state Senator Sheila Harsdorf won the 10th Senate District to give Republicans a one-seat majority.
Harsdorf faces a potential recall election this year. Her district borders Minnesota and the 2000 campaign included heavy spending on Twin Cities television advertising to reach her western Wisconsin district.
"It's a relatively small number of elections and so interest groups can focus their electioneering on a relatively small number of races," McCabe said. "That makes conditions ripe for record spending."
ODDS LONG FOR DEMOCRATS TO TAKE SENATE BACK
Wisconsin became center stage in a battle over Republican efforts in many states to trim the powers of unions, still a key funding base for the Democratic Party nationally.
Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for the Real Clear Politics website, believes Democrats have maybe a 30 percent chance of gaining the seats needed to take back the Senate.
"If the Democrats lose, it's a signal in Michigan and Ohio and Indiana that labor is a paper tiger," Trende said.
"On the other hand, if they win, it's a sign that labor means business and you just don't mess around with them."
Petition drives were launched against all eight Republican and eight Democratic state senators who could be challenged.
Democratic committees have filed petitions against Senators Dan Kapanke, Randy Hopper, Luther Olsen, Alberta Darling and Harsdorf. Republican committees have filed for recall elections against Senators Jim Holperin, Robert Wirch and Dave Hansen.
Challenges against Senate Democrats Fred Risser and Lena Taylor failed after petition deadlines passed on Monday. Both ran unopposed in 2008 and were not seen as vulnerable.
Petitioners face a Tuesday deadline on Democratic Senator Spencer Coggs and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller who both ran unopposed in 2008.
The Government Accountability Board reviews the thousands of signatures submitted by the committees. Targeted lawmakers may challenge the signatures and decisions can be appealed.
The board plans to seek judicial approval to extend its review process to hold the elections on a single day.
The accountability board is also conducting a recount from the nonpartisan state Supreme Court race in April. Conservative incumbent David Prosser defeated challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg by just over 7,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast in a race that became a proxy for Walker's performance.
McCabe said spending on the Supreme Court race totaled about $5.4 million, $4.5 million from outside interest groups.
(Additional reporting by James B. Kelleher in Chicago; Editing by Jerry Norton)