The money in the Wisconsin recall races is bordering on obscene, as expected, and on both sides. We Are Wisconsin, the labor coalition, has raised close to $10 million for the recalls. And on the other end of the scale, the Club for Growth has put in about $3 to $4 million, and they’re just one of the many pro-Walker groups contributing to the recall effort.

I want to focus on the ad strategy on the left, because I am simultaneously heartened and crestfallen about it. The closing ads from We Are Wisconsin tie Scott Walker very directly to the Republican Senators being recalled, with a focus on cuts to education and health care to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

This closing ad from liberal groups features a former supporter of Alberta Darling, one of the Republicans, explaining why he’s switching to the Democrat. It’s because of cuts to education to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

I’ve seen most of the recall ads. A good number of them, perhaps all of them, have this theme. This has by and large been the theme of the campaign: cuts to education and health care to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the rich. Now, Chris Bowers believes this is a good thing, that it’s a message rooted in class warfare, calling out the right-wing agenda. There’s no compromised “we all believe the deficit should be cut” theme in these ads. Basically, they say that the Republican agenda in Wisconsin is wrong for the state.

By their very nature, umbrella organizations like We Are Wisconsin do not often take risks. If this is the message that they are closing with, then it must have proven, quantifiably, to be their most successful message during polling and voter contacts.

That’s the real story here: the strongest possible Democratic message right now is that they oppose Republicans who would take from the working and middle classes in order to give to the rich. Further, given that all six of the Republicans facing recalls won their most recent elections in 2008 despite the national Obama wave, if Democrats are able to defeat those Republicans using this message in 2011, then it will stand out as perhaps the strongest Democratic message in a generation.

And that’s fine. I’m not in possession of the data here.

Still, I’m wondering where all the union workers went. Wasn’t that the entire purpose of this recall campaign? Didn’t it arise out of an attack on public employees, an attack that was eventually successful? Isn’t this entire campaign supposed to represent payback for the assault on worker’s rights? Weren’t those rights to collectively bargain and organize seen as very popular among all levels of Wisconsinites during the winter and spring? Didn’t that attract over 100,000 people to Madison and lead to the occupation of the Capitol? Isn’t that the spark that built a new labor/youth/progressive movement that’s supposed to culminate in this recall?

Union members have simply vanished from the TV screens in Wisconsin. And I know for a fact that it didn’t have to be this way. We had an election out here in California in 2005, when Arnold Schwarzenegger put forward a series of right-wing, union-busting ballot initiatives. The ad campaign was very simple: teachers, nurses, police and fire fighters all addressing the camera, saying that Schwarzenegger was trying to hurt them and hardworking folks like them. And Californians responded, defeating Arnold’s ballot measures in a landslide.

To be fair, the individual in the ad from liberal groups is a teacher. And I don’t have a problem with the class war critique. The budget battle in Wisconsin just happened and is fresher in people’s minds. I still fail to understand why public employees in Wisconsin have become invisible in recall elections originated by an assault on public employees.

David Dayen

David Dayen