And then there was Wisconsin. The largely homegrown labor-progressive coalition that responded to Gov. Scott Walker's collective-bargaining reforms by attempting to oust him 16 months into his term appears not to have anticipated the extent to which it would be outgunned financially. Walker had set a state record by raising $11 million for his 2010 campaign. But for the recall, he proceeded to raise nearly $31 million through the end of May, taking advantage of a loophole in state law that allowed him to raise unlimited amounts for several months of the recall effort. (Wisconsin's normal limit on individual contributions is $10,000.)
Walker's Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, raised less than $4 million -- a little more than one-eighth Walker's total. The 8-to-1 multiplier has spread widely in Democratic circles, proffered as both an excuse for the loss and a fearful totem of what may lie ahead. As Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told me in a recent interview, "We're not going to get outspent 8-to-1, which is what Walker just outspent Barrett .... With the combination of super PACs and Romney, we will be outspent. But not 8-to-1."
The sheer amount of money unleashed by Walker and his allies was the No. 1 lesson of the Wisconsin fight, Mike Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, said in a recent briefing with reporters. "If that's the ratio in the general election, it will be deeply problematic," he said. "Walker was able to command a huge amount of resources, and that matters in a Citizens United world where people like Sheldon Adelson can write $10 million checks."
Republicans will likely pour most of their spending into television ads, an effort Democrats believe they can combat on the cheap with a robust grassroots effort. (The air war vs. ground game issue is the subject of lively and perpetual debate in Democratic circles, with some fretting that a fetish for field organization leads the left to underfund the equally vital work of a blitz of nasty TV commercials.) But that will only work to a point, he said.
"We expect that the candidates we support will be outspent, but if they're outspent 7-to-1 across the board in November, then this is not the America of the last 200 years," Podhorzer said. "If that happens on a national scale, this is really not a democracy anymore."
To Republicans, who watched Obama raise and spend more than twice as much as John McCain did in 2008, Democrats' whining that all this money is somehow unfair is rather rich. "The president's team was hoping for a repeat of 2008, when financial muscle made it possible to spread out the battlefield and make a (successful) play for more states," Rove gloated in a recent Wall Street Journal column. "That won't happen this time."
But the 7-to-1 or 8-to-1 figure actually seriously overstates the amount Barrett was outspent in Wisconsin. In fact, the Wisconsin money scenario could be much closer to what's about to happen to Obama.