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As anyone with a television has probably figured out by now, Wisconsin’s recall elections are in full swing. The millions of dollars flowing into these contests, much from special interest groups, are being transformed into 30- and 60-second commercials, most of them negative.

Negative messages have been a feature of political campaigns since Oorg challenged Grok: “His fault fire die.” But the ads in the current recall elections are extraordinary for several reasons.

First, the sheer volume. David Canon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor, says there’s no doubt that combined candidate and third-party spending in the state’s nine recall elections (one already decided) will top $10 million. One of his colleagues has predicted based on early totals it could go as high as $20 million.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, says estimates between $20 million and $30 million in total spending on the Aug. 9 and Aug. 16 elections “are not inconceivable.”

And Republican Gov. Scott Walker, in a fundraising appeal to supporters, asserted that public employee unions alone “are now pouring up to $25 million to pay for endless attack ads against our senators into these elections to recall them.” Canon says this estimate seems “way on the high end to me.”

Certainly there’s a lot of money being spent and a lot of commercials being aired.

The ads run in different markets but seem to draw from a collective well of inspiration. The ones from Republicans stress fiscal responsibility; the ones from Democrats talk about school spending cuts and tax breaks to “corporations and the super-rich.”

One ad, attacking state Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, is virtually a copy of one attacking state Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse. Both show a car driving past a school kid, an elderly couple and a family, then stopping to pick up some corporate fat cats. The only difference is the name of the candidate on the license plate.

The ad against Hopper is from We Are Wisconsin PAC, a labor group. The one against Kapanke is from Wisconsin Women Vote!, an offshoot of Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women candidates.

In addition to their astonishing ubiquity, the recall campaign ads seem especially toxic, perhaps playing off the high levels of polarization in our state’s political landscape. The point isn’t just that the other candidate is no good, but that he or she is evil.

“Republican Luther Olsen takes his marching orders from big corporations,” declares an ad produced by People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Now Luther Olsen expects us to give up our way of life. Surrender? That’s not the American way.”

A review of ads posted on the “AdWatch” section of reveals the toxicity. Of the 31 recall-related ads posted on the site between July 12 and July 29, all but eight are entirely or primarily attack ads. Some don’t even mention the names of the candidates they actually support, just the ones they oppose.

Of the remaining ads, just two don’t disparage a candidate, one for state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, and one for Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie.

Dhavan Shah, a professor of mass communication and political science at UW-Madison, laments that quiet, mostly local elections have become “major television campaigns” driven largely by outside groups. (Only a third of the ads mentioned above were issued by candidates’ campaigns.)

But what really troubles Shah is the “viciousness” of the ads. “It’s really gotten pretty ugly pretty quickly,” he notes. “I’m dispirited about the possibility of a more civil discourse.”

Shah is not talking just about negative campaign messages but about “the broader climate of political polarization,” on the state and federal level. He thinks the nastiness of political campaigns has repercussions beyond the elections.

“That anger doesn’t dissipate,” he says. “It stays with people. The climate of the campaigns spills over into day-to-day political behavior.”

Now that is something truly dangerous.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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