Spending by outside political groups has more than doubled in the last three weeks in the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race to a record $45.7 million.
The money far outstrips the $20 million raised by the campaigns of Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin as of Oct. 17, according to government figures and other sources.
Taken together, the tightly contested race has cost more than $65 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But spending will go higher when all of the money over the final weeks is accounted for.
The only Wisconsin race to cost more is this past summer's gubernatorial recall. The election between Gov. Scott Walker and his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, cost $80.9 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
With its incessant advertising, the last-minute barrage of phone calls over the weekend and hyper-negative tone, the scrum between Baldwin, a congresswoman, and Thompson, a former governor, is hard to ignore.
Ad spending has picked up sharply. Three weeks ago, outside groups had put $21 million into the race, dating back to late 2011.
Thompson has especially benefited. He's received $5.8 million over the past week, compared with $1.3 million for Baldwin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign and independent expenditures. The outlays are likely higher, due to a lag in reporting.
The money not only pays for ads on TV, radio and online, but also for direct mail brochures, voter lists, phone calls, office rental, van rentals and salaries for get-out-the-vote workers -- much of it bankrolled by the heightened presence of independent political groups this year.
"These have been massive donations," said Joe Rasmussen, program associate with the consumer group WISPIRG. "They far exceed what the average person can do to support a political candidate."
Nationally, WISPIRG and other groups like it released a report on Friday condemning this new wave of political spending because of the unlimited nature of spending, and because the source of much of the money isn't disclosed.
Outside spending in the 2012 election cycle has so far reached $1.1 billion -- 400% higher than the 2008 cycle, according to U.S. PIRG, the umbrella group for organizations such as WISPIRG.
The surge from third-party groups was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which said government couldn't stop corporations or unions from spending, either for or against a candidate.
Wisconsin ranks second behind Virginia in independent expenditures this year. The Virginia senate race has attracted $53 million.
The top groups spending in the Wisconsin race:
For Thompson and against Baldwin: American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, $7.4 million; National Republican Senatorial Committee, $5.6 million; and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $2.8 million. Crossroads was founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove.
For Baldwin and against Thompson: Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $7.2 million; Majority PAC, $4.9 million; and Women Vote! $3.2 million. Women Vote is affiliated with EMILY'S List and backs candidates who support abortion.
Money is pouring into key races across the country in the hope of maintaining or changing control of the Senate.
The Senate now has 51 Democratic members and 47 Republicans. Two senators are independent, but they caucus with the Democrats.
Real Clear Politics ranks 45 seats as safe or leaning toward Democrats or they are not up for election. Republicans have 43 seats that are safe or leaning toward them.
Twelve seats are rated as a tossup, including Wisconsin.
Based on Wisconsin polling and other factors, The New York Times' Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog , predicts Baldwin as the likely winner.
In a poll released by Marquette University Law School on Wednesday, Baldwin led by 47% to 43%. All told, three polls in the last week narrowly favored Baldwin and two favored Thompson.
Thompson and Baldwin have both complained about the role of outside spending and use it as evidence of powerful interests attacking them.
Baldwin favors more disclosure of where the outside groups get their money.
She voted for a bill known as the "DISCLOSE Act." It passed the house in 2010, but the measure was blocked by the Senate. The Senate blocked another version last summer, citing First Amendment rights.
The bill would have required an organization that spends $10,000 or more in an election cycle to report within 24 hours any donors who gave $10,000 or more.
Thompson said he hasn't made up his mind about such a law.
"I want to look at it," he said at a stop in Waukesha last week. "But I don't want to make any snap judgments."
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