Politics

02.20.14

Dem’s the Breaks: GOP Investigation Gives the Left Another Reason to Point Fingers

Thousands of pages linking the Wisconsin governor’s campaign staff to derogatory statements, along with illegal campaign activity, may be just a minor election derailment for Scott Walker—but the Democrats are lapping up his near-Bridgegate fiasco.

Is it time for some traffic problems in Wisconsin, too?

That’s what Democrats are hoping for at least, after 26,000 pages of documents were released Wednesday afternoon about an investigation into Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s first campaign that seemed all too similar to Chris Christie’s ongoing traffic troubles on the George Washington Bridge.

“While Republican governors from Chris Christie to [former Virginia Governor] Bob McDonnell are facing ethical problems, we are now seeing that Scott Walker is no exception,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who happened to be in the state for a fundraiser as the documents were being released. “As scandals continue to unfold in front of him, they beg more questions than I am sure Scott Walker would like to answer.”

The documents were derived from a John Doe investigation—a secret legal probe unique to Wisconsin that functions much like a grand jury investigation— and center around whether or not Walker illegally combined campaign and government work while serving as Milwaukee County Executive and running for governor in 2010. The governor was not implicated in any wrongdoing, but the probe did lead to the conviction of six of his former aides and allies.

As reporters and campaign operatives poured over the trove, a number of embarrassing details leaked out. Among them, that Walker’s chief of staff forwarded an email joke that read, “I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted Jewish homosexual…but please, oh dear God, don’t make me a Democrat;” that Walker personally ordered the firing of a doctor at a county mental health facility because she had once worked as a thong model; that when the Walker campaign was criticized for a death at a mental health facility, a top aide wrote “nobody cares about crazy people.”

There were plenty of bones for Walker’s opponents to chew on, too. There appears to have been vast coordination between the campaign and governmental arms of Walker’s operation, with the governor’s staff setting up a wireless router and alternative computing system in the county executive’s office to allow them to speak about the campaign. Walker also apparently requested that officials from both participate in a daily conference call to discuss the campaign.

Privately, however, Wisconsin Democrats doubted that the release of material from the John Doe Investigation would derail him in his re-election bid against former commerce secretary Mary Burke. Walker has led consistently in the polls, and even Wasserman Schultz devoted the first several minutes of her conference call to Walker’s jobs record, rather than the scandal.

“I am sure there are political somebodies who said something about some other somebody that wasn’t the highest form of flattery, but I think we have been through this.”

“For political insiders this is much to feast on. For people who love baseball it is like living through the draft. Every development is fascinating,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of government at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.  “But I am guessing this is going to be a hiccup in his career.”

Unlike the trove of documents that tie Chris Christie to the bridge scandal, the documents released in Wisconsin on Wednesday refer to a closed matter, and one that, rightly or wrongly, didn’t see Walker doing anything criminal.

“I don’t think anybody is expecting any bombshells, or even any firecrackers,” said Brandon Scholz, a Madison-based GOP operative. “I am sure there are political somebodies who said something about some other somebody that wasn’t the highest form of flattery, but I think we have been through this.”

For Wisconsinites, the release of the emails meant tangible proof of something that has been in the political air since Walker ran for re-election. The John Doe investigation was a major Democratic talking point at the end of Walker’s re-call campaign; the governor was a surprise winner, and Democrats seemed reluctant to take out the line of attack again.

Walker is facing another John Doe investigation, however, one that centers around the illegal coordination of campaign activity between the governor’s campaign and outside interest groups like the Club for Growth. If anything, suspicions that Walker acting improperly in that case are likely to grow now.

“There is more to toppling Walker than waiting for a scandal to erupt. The pathway to toppling him is much more complicated than that,” said Jeff Mayers, president of WisPolitics.com, an online political news service.

If anything, the brewing scandal seemed more likely to derail the recent Walker boomlet in the 2016 presidential race, one that has been buoyed aloft by Christie’s recent troubles. After the traffic controversy on the George Washington Bridge, Republican donors and opinion leaders may be reluctant to get behind someone who is similarly dogged with scandal.

“Democrats have finally figured out that this obscure governor of a flyover state is a major contender for the 2016 presidential nomination,” said Lee. “They are trying to do to him what they did to Mitt Romney, and trying to define him in the public eye before he can introduce himself.”

For the moment at least, Walker appears to be weathering the controversy.

“This is just what Democrats and the press do to Republican presidential candidates,” said Michael Steele, a former president of the Republican National Committee. “Throw anything against the wall and see what sticks.”