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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, to the role of money in this recall election. Governor Scott Walker outraised and outspent his challenger by far. Part of the reason for that - well, as NPR's Andrea Seabrook explains, a quirk in Wisconsin's election laws allowed Walker to bypass limits on political donations.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: The law in Wisconsin says candidates for governor may not take donations of more than $10,000 a pop. That was the limit under which the challenger in this recall election, Tom Barrett, operated. But the governor, Scott Walker, had a different set of rules because of a somewhat obscure law passed in 1987. It says that when a governor is facing a recall challenge, the normal donation limits are suspended for, quote, "the payment of legal fees and other expenses."

What does other expenses cover? It's easier to ask what it doesn't cover.

BILL LUEDERS: What doesn't qualify as other expenses? Not much.

SEABROOK: Bill Lueders directs the Money and Politics Project at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. For months, he's been combing through campaign laws, financial disclosures, expense reports and other primary documents. This is what he's found.

LUEDERS: Tom Barrett does have to abide by this $10,000 limit on individual contributions. He has gotten, as of today, 26 contributions of $10,000.

SEABROOK: But Walker had him beat in two ways. First, Walker raised more than four times the number of $10,000 contributions. Second, because Walker didn't have to abide by that limit, he raised 111 contributions of more than $10,000. How'd he do it? Lueder says largely by going outside of Wisconsin.

LUEDERS: Fifty-nine percent of his overall contributions come from people in other states.

SEABROOK: And of those $10,000-plus donations, three-quarters came from donors in other states, ardent conservatives such as Foster Friess of Wyoming - the best-known Rick Santorum donor - and Bob Perry of Texas, the sponsor of the swift boat ads that attacked John Kerry in 2004. All this money has gone from funding the campaigns to being one of the campaign's main issues. Just a few days ago, Barrett tried to rally his supporters around the issue.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: And he thinks that this state is going to fall for that money coming from out of state. We have news for him. He's got the mountains of money. I've got you.

SEABROOK: And speaking to the local NBC affiliate in Madison, Walker tried to downplay the money advantage and focus on national labor union support for his opponent.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: I think they're trying to buy it, but not for me, but against me. I mean, the money that's come in since last February has overwhelmingly been from special interests, particularly big government unions in Washington.

SEABROOK: Now, about a quarter of Barrett's money came from outside of Wisconsin. Lueders, the investigative journalist, says in any other year, that would seem an astronomical amount. But this year, it's dwarfed by Walker's out-of-state fundraising. That, says Lueders, shows how much this race has become a national battle.

LUEDERS: And I think both sides correctly perceive that the outcome in Wisconsin will have consequences for public workers and others throughout the country.

SEABROOK: It's also early evidence of a flood analysts and campaign watchdogs have been predicting for 2012, with national organizations, groups and individuals directing a torrent of cash at a few key states that have never seen anything like it before. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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