Local politics is national in Wisconsin this weekend.
It’s not just because the attempt to recall conservative Gov. Scott Walker is a ground-game test case that foreshadows the super PAC–funded fight between big business and big labor in the fall presidential election.
It’s because the Wisconsin GOP dominates the Republican National Committee right now. This is a time of national influence for Badger State conservatives—and this recall effort is a personal challenge not just to Scott Walker, but to Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus and his team at the top of RNC.
Priebus was the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party from 2007 through 2010 while also serving as the RNC’s general counsel. Under his leadership, the GOP took control of the Wisconsin statehouse as well as the Governor’s mansion. Walker and Preibus are personally close, talking and texting frequently, with a friendship that goes back more than a decade to when Walker served in the State Assembly and Preibus ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate.
Politics is about personal relationships, and the Wisconsin ties within the RNC run deep right now. For example, RNC Political Director Rick Wiley served as executive director of the state party. RNC counsel Jonathan Waclawski previously was finance director and chief counsel of the state party. Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski worked as communications director of the state party. And National Field Director Juston Johnson was the campaign manager for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (no relation) as well as political director of the state party. The august offices of the RNC are now a paradise for Cheeseheads.
None of this is unprecedented or improper. It’s common for executives to bring in trusted team members from their home state. But the disproportionate influence of Wisconsin Republicans reflects how personally invested members of the RNC apparatus in this Tuesday’s recall results. This is personal—an ideological fight playing out on their home turf. And it shows how the national Republican Party has been uniquely well positioned to push back on attempts to undo the 2010 election results, beginning with state Senate special elections in April 2011.
While Wisconsin is regarded as a swing state that leans Democrat in presidential elections, progressive forces’ focus on pushing back against the Tea Party in this particular state could seem ill-timed and ill-advised in retrospect. The national party’s strong ties to Walker and knowledge of the state’s politics helps account for why Democratic efforts, first to stop Walker’s policies and then to push him from office, have been unsuccessful to date despite the governor’s extraordinarily polarizing presence. This RNC team knows Wisconsin cold and has helped direct national resources to what might have been otherwise a remote local fight in 2015.
The Republican Party’s history in Wisconsin, is deep and reflects the party’s competing conservative and progressive traditions. The GOP’s birthplace is regarded as Ripon, Wis., where it was formed in a small schoolhouse an antislavery alternative to the Whig Party in 1854. In the early decades of the 20th-century, “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and his sons were nationally known as Republican senators and leaders of the progressive movement. But a different, darker Republican tradition also emerged in Wisconsin by the mid-20th century, characterized by conservative Sen. Joe McCarthy and the establishment of the John Birch Society in Appleton, Wis. Rabidly anticommunist and reactionary in ways that helped give rise to both the book and term “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” their influence on mainstream debates faded after McCarthy’s deserved disgrace. But in the 1990s, the Wisconsin Republican Party came back into national prominence with the pioneering welfare reform initiatives of Gov. Tommy Thompson, who won reelections by nearly 60 percent margins. And even before the elections of 2010, perhaps the brightest rising star and intellectual leader of the Republican Party was Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
But Scott Walker’s election in 2010 signified a decided shift to the right for statewide Republican candidates, and his collective bargaining reforms for public-sector unions—which he didn’t mention on the trail but introduced just after taking office—spurred weeks of protests at the state capital. The petition effort required to get a recall effort on the ballot returned more than a million signatures—twice the number needed. By early April, a stunning 46 percent of state residents strongly disapproved of his performance in office. The latest polls show Walker, despite marinating in sky-high disapproval numbers, with a slight edge over his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett—but it’s all going to come down to the ground game on Election Day.
Buoyed by his national ties, and the national prominence of Tuesday’s recall contest—Walker has raised almost $15 million from out-of-state donors, as well as $10 million from those within Wisconsin. As of May 1, Walker had raised more from donors in Texas, Illinois, Florida, California, Missouri, and New York than Barrett had raised in total. Among the highest profile big-dollar Walker donors are Newt’s onetime super PAC sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson, who cut a $250,000 check, and Rick Santorum’s super PAC benefactor Foster Friess, who kicked in $100,000.
But while national prominence and connections have helped Walker’s bottom line, a series of local scandals threatens to add to the recall momentum. A “John Doe” investigation into improprieties when Walker was county executive is still being conducted, and six onetime Walker aides have been confronted with criminal charges and 13 individuals granted immunity. The public charges range from evidence that a separate wireless email router was installed in the county executive office to allow campaign-related business and fundraising to be conducted on government time to the far more serious and salacious charge that onetime Walker deputy chief of staff and economic development director Tim Russell embezzled more than $60,000 from a veterans charity.
To date, Walker has transferred $100,000 from campaign funds into legal defense funds. The ongoing nature of this investigation could continue to dog Walker and his allies even if he passes the recall text on Tuesday. Wisconsin Republican politics is a small world, and indictments could affect local figures well known to the Badger State crew running the RNC. This is the considerable downside that comes when local politics reaches the national level.