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MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Spending on recall election campaigns for Wisconsin's Senate, seen as a potential gauge of public sentiment, has reached about $30 million, largely by outside interest groups, a nonpartisan watchdog said on Thursday.
Wisconsin's recall votes, the largest wave of special state elections in U.S. history, have drawn broad national attention as a preview of political tactics for the 2012 presidential race.
The result has been record spending by candidates and unprecedented inflows of money from Republican and Democratic aligned interest groups pushing the elections well beyond a simple fight for control of the Wisconsin state Senate.
"We are off in the stratosphere," said Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors campaign financing. "This is totally uncharted territory for us."
Six state Senate Republicans face election challenges on Tuesday and two Senate Democrats on August 16. A third Senate Democrat easily won a recall election in July. Democrats need to gain three seats to take back control of the state Senate. Republicans will still control the state Assembly.
The nine incumbent state senators and their challengers had reported spending $5.1 million to Thursday, with two already eclipsing the record for a state Senate election, McCabe said.
Registered interest groups reported $12.8 million of spending by Thursday and examinations of TV ad buys, direct mailings and other data suggest groups that do not have to register have equaled or exceeded those levels, he said.
Last year, registered special interests spent what was a then stunning $3.75 million on Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly races combined, a year in which both sides of the legislature shifted to Republican control, McCabe said.
Among interest groups, McCabe said, spending has been about even with a slight edge possible to Republicans overall. The Democratic We Are Wisconsin has been the biggest single spender this year at $7.9 million, while Republican spending was divided more among multiple groups.
"A candidate can raise record amounts of money and still be a bystander in the election, basically standing on the sidelines watching the interest groups duke it out," he said.
Republican Senators Alberta Darling and Dan Kapanke have each eclipsed the $722,000 record for spending on a state Senate race, McCabe said.
Darling also has raised more than $1.1 million, nearly double that of Democratic challenger state Representative Sandy Pasch, campaign finance records show. Kapanke has raised more than $880,000, nearly triple that of challenger Democratic Representative Jennifer Shilling.
In normal races, a candidate raising more money would be a presumed favorite, but that may not be the case with so much outside money flowing into the elections, McCabe said.
"The interest groups have a virtual monopoly on the campaign advertising," McCabe said.
Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston