There was a big political development in Wisconsin Thursday, with the release of court documents that include an allegation by state prosecutors that Gov. Scott Walker, a 2016 presidential prospect, was part of a “criminal scheme” to skirt state laws in coordinating with outside conservative groups to stave off the 2011-2012 recall effort prompted by his successful push to undo public employee collective bargaining. The allegation was contained in files ordered unsealed by a judge in the so-called “John Doe II” case into whether Walker’s political team and outside conservative groups violated Wisconsin’s stringent rules against direct coordination between independent political groups and candidates by funneling millions of dollars from donors, many of them from outside Wisconsin, to fight the recall, which Walker won in June 2012. The investigation has devolved into a legal morass—a federal judge ordered a halt to it in May and instructed prosecutors to destroy their evidence, saying they were overreaching, but his order was in turn blocked by a federal appeals court, which will soon rule on whether the investigation can proceed. Meanwhile, rumors circulate that Walker is in talks to settle the case with the state prosecutors, which has earned him the ire of some of his conservative allies.
Walker, now in the midst of a tight race for reelection, has not been charged with any crime. Still, the document's release adds considerable detail to the murky fog around the investigation, and, by laying out so many of the prosecutors’ findings, helps explain why Walker may be inclined to settle rather than fight the case. The five county district attorneys leading the investigation appear to have plenty of goods to back up their claim of a “nationwide effort to raise undisclosed funds for an organization which then funded the activities of other organizations supporting or opposing candidates subject to recall.” From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the release:
In the documents, prosecutors lay out what they call an extensive "criminal scheme" to bypass state election laws by Walker, his campaign and two top Republican political operatives — R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl.
The governor and his close confidants helped raise money and control spending through 12 conservative groups during the recall elections, according to the prosecutors' filings.
The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker's longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections.
"Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities)," Walker wrote to Rove on May 4, 2011.
I did not go down the rabbit hole of the John Doe II investigation in my new cover story about Walker and the racial divisions and political polarization in metro Milwaukee. (The piece does quote from racially charged emails released as part of an earlier investigation—“John Doe I”—that produced guilty pleas by six former Walker aides and allies, for misdeeds that include embezzling from a veterans fund and doing campaign work on taxpayer time.) I decided that delving into the John Doe II morass might distract from the piece’s focus on how the metro Milwaukee political landscape, with its stark divides and influential local talk-radio culture, has shaped Walker and in turn been shaped by him.
But the theme of the cover story and the investigation into coordination between Walker’s team and conservative groups are not unrelated. Both are, at bottom, about the same thing: the protective bubble of adulation and affirmation in which Walker has become increasingly ensconced in Wisconsin. The cover story describes one aspect of this bubble—the astonishingly monolithic base that Walker has, with the help of the talk-radio hosts he has cultivated for years, built for himself in the nearly all-white suburbs of Milwaukee, where voters turn out at the highest rates in the country to vote for him at levels that surpass 80 percent in some communities.
The other aspect of this bubble, though, is the inter-locking network of conservative groups and donors, such as Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers, have since 2010 come together to boost Walker and the Republican legislators who joined him in pushing through an aggressive conservative agenda in the face of massive protests in Madison. It is worth recalling that when a prank caller got through to Walker in February 2011 pretending to be David Koch, Walker made a direct request to the man he thought was Koch: to do everything he could to offer covering fire to protect Republican legislators: “A lot of these [lawmakers] are going to need a message out there reinforcing why this is a good thing for the economy and for the state,” Walker told “David Koch.”
That is what this investigation is about, whether the “reinforcement” provided by conservative groups and donors to Walker and legislators up for recall broke the law. In ordering a halt to the investigation in May, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, a Republican appointee who has been active in conservative judicial-activist circles, argued that there was no problem with coordination between Walker and outside groups because it wasn’t as if the groups were trying to bring Walker over to their side by funding his anti-recall campaign: “[Wisconsin Club for Growth] obviously agree[s] with Governor Walker’s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians,” Randa wrote in his ruling. “Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”
This is a striking claim, reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings against limits on campaign contributions—that limits can only be justified as bars against explicit attempts to bribe politicians to change their stances on issues. But that’s not what at issue in the John Doe II investigation—the question is whether the outside groups exerted undue influence over the outcome of the recall by skirting the state’s rules on coordination. It is whether the state’s electoral system was corrupted, not whether Walker was. No, there’s not any question that Walker already agrees with the groups that were backing him—as our cover story shows, he’s developed politically in a deeply homogenous realm with precious little space for deviation. Our piece argues that this development has had a limiting effect on him that makes him a less than ideal presidential candidate for a Republican Party seeking to broaden its ideological and demographic appeal.
But with today’s release, the odds that Walker will even get the chance to make the 2016 case for himself within his party took a hit. The bubble helped Scott Walker rise, but it now threatens to take him down.