The Un-Mitt Romney

Inside Scott Walker’s Secret Brain Trust

These days behind every great man is a great think tank. And Scott Walker is no exception.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

The 2011 protests against Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining overhaul made for an emotionally challenging day for one intern.

The intern in question was working for a conservative think tank called the MacIver Institute, and his superiors sent him up to the capitol with a video camera to tape the protesters at their wackiest.

When one protester spotted him and realized who he was with, he gave chase, yelling profanity.

“I felt bad,” said Brett Healey, the president of the MacIver Institute, who relayed to me this tale—noting the intern escaped unharmed and the protester apologized. “I didn’t want to have to call his mom and say, ‘Your son got into an altercation his first day.’”

His mom shouldn’t have been surprised.

After Democrats took full control of the state government in 2008, there was a Cambrian explosion of conservative organizations that have worked overtime to push the historically progressive state in a rapidly rightward direction.

And while Walker’s ascent on the national political scene (and, of course, in the Republican presidential sweepstakes) has been quick, dramatic, and seemingly inexorable, he couldn’t have zipped to the top of the polls without the conservative groups that have propelled his rise and repelled his enemies.

Perhaps more than any other candidate eyeing the Oval Office, Walker has benefitted from home-state organizers and funders who have mastered the art of defending conservatives and making their foes look like dopes. And the MacIver Institute has been right in the thick of it.

MacIver, along with a host of other conservative groups, is backed in part by the Bradley Foundation, which has built a tiny empire in the Midwestern state and had substantial influence on Walker’s conservative agenda.

Bradley-backed groups have helped expedite Walker’s ascent to power, and their success shows just how much clout wealthy donors and strategic activists can have on the way a state gets governed.

This is a long story, so I’ll try to be concise.

In 2008, Wisconsin Republicans got totally shellacked.

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By the end of Election Night, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle had cruised to re-election and his party controlled both chambers of the state legislature. One Wisconsin Democratic consultant said his party had a sort of embarrassment of riches; they’d had a great year in 2006 as well, so they found themselves with lots of power but (comparatively) little in the way of long-term strategy. Those were the salad days.

They didn’t last.

Around the time of the Tea Party wave, deep-pocketed Republicans started investing heavily in conservative infrastructure.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in 2011, in an in-depth look at the organization, that the Bradley Foundation spent more than $350 million between 2001 and 2010 to support a host of philanthropic endeavors, including arts organizations and national policy groups. Recipients included the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Reason magazine.

Conservative activists in Wisconsin have been beneficiaries of much of that largesse.

In the Badger State, the Bradley Foundation has helped fund MacIver, as well as Media Trackers—a group that digs for dirt on Democrats—and the Wisconsin Reporter, a conservative news site that is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, according to Wisconsin-based Cap Times. Bradley also helps fund the Wisconsin chapter of American Majority, a conservative organization that trains activists on how to volunteer on campaigns, do issue advocacy, and run for office.

Matt Batzel, American Majority’s national executive director, said its Wisconsin chapter has had about 140 activist training sessions since 2010. Among the people they’ve trained, 128 have gone on to win races for local- or state-level offices in the state.

Since they got hosed in 2008, conservative influence in the state has metastasized rapidly.

But Walker was their crown jewel.

In 2010, Walker won the governorship, Republicans took control of the majority of the state’s congressional delegation, and Democrats lost both chambers of the state legislature.

Liberals were agog.

Now, pretend you’re Scott Walker and you’ve just gotten inaugurated on a cold January day in 2011. You’re governing a state that birthed the modern labor movement and that’s been a stronghold for the blue-collar Democrats for most of the modern era. You’re in power, but your situation is—to put it lightly—precarious. How do you govern? If you were a typical governor in a typical version of that scenario, you would govern very, very cautiously. You would tiptoe. You would hedge. You would compromise. You would be Mitt Romney.

But Scott Walker is not Mitt Romney. And a large part of the reason he implemented such a proactively conservative agenda—defunding Planned Parenthood, dramatically curtailing public-sector unions’ power, passing Right to Work legislation—is because of the conservative infrastructure that simultaneously pushed him in that direction and made that direction an easy way to go.

Let’s start with the collective bargaining overhaul, known as Act 10.

A few weeks after Walker won the race for governor, MacIver’s then-communications director, Brian Fraley, wrote an op-ed arguing for changes in the laws regarding public-sector unions and collective bargaining. That op-ed is widely seen as the blueprint for Act 10.

“We used to be a state where we make things,” wrote Fraley. “Now we are a state that makes excuses for why the government behemoth cannot be tamed. That must change.”

And that changed.

Just two months after Walker’s inauguration, he signed Act 10 and set off protests of Biblical proportions.

MacIver not only helped lay the policy groundwork for Act 10, it also helped manage its aftermath.

Though the organization is a think tank, it also has an effective media arm.

MacIver sent staff members out with cameras to cover the protests, chatting up activists and making YouTube videos of the more eyebrow-raising encounters.

A handful of MacIver videos went viral, got picked up by the Drudge Report, and nabbed national cable news coverage. One particularly popular video showed protesters writing fake doctor’s notes so their fellow activists wouldn’t get in trouble for skipping work.

Critics charged there were problems with the video, and Democratic state Senator Chris Larson said it was “essentially made up.” But the push-back was powerless.

“‘There’s people giving out doctor’s notes at the protests—that became the dialogue,’” Larson said. “It ended up changing the debate.”

Another MacIver viral video showed protesters wearing zombie face paint crashing an event where the governor was trying to address Special Olympics participants. Nick Novak, MacIver’s director of communications, said there were many other media outlets at the event. But they didn’t seem interested in the zombie attendees.

“It seemed we were the only ones who were actually covering that aspect of it,” Novak said.

The Wisconsin press corps has faced the same problems as other local newsrooms around the country: shrinking budgets, smaller circulations, and fewer reporters.

Conservative news-gathering groups like MacIver have moved into that vacuum and used their resources to push stories that reflect right-leaning values.

“The media capacity to look into a governor and hold him accountable is diminishing at the same time this right-wing capacity to influence the media is increasing,” said Robert Kraig, who heads the progressive Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

Media Trackers and Wisconsin Reporter, along with MacIver, have had impact. And their critics have noticed.

“If there was no Bradley Foundation, there would be no Scott Walker,” Larson said. “They have provided the insulation from criticism as well as the lubricant to move him forward over the last 20 years of his career.”

“There’s always a full-blown communication apparatus to defend whatever the governor is doing,” said Kraig. “They’ve given him a lot of cover, so he doesn’t have to be the only target.”

Scot Ross, who heads One Wisconsin Now, calls MacIver “a propaganda factory for the failed Walker policies that have put Wisconsin near the bottom of the Midwest in job creation.”

On the conservative side, activists and lawmakers are delighted with the work of MacIver and other Bradley-funded groups.

Republican state Senator Leah Vukmir added that MacIver’s defense of Act 10 helped shore up support for the governor as energy on the left was growing for the recall.

“All the naysayers were saying that Act 10 was the worst thing in the world, that the sky was going to fall, and that there wouldn’t be enough teachers to teach classes, school sports would end,” Vukmir said. “[MacIver] highlighted the positive things that were happening. Those weren’t easy to find in the beginning.”

“They’re kind of a combination of a think tank and media,” said state Representative Dale Kooyenga, a Republican. “They’re part of the whole messaging machine.”

He said that MacIver was instrumental in the efforts to change the tax code that were part of the governor’s 2013 budget. The think tank is also an energetic proponent of Right to Work policies like the one that Wisconsin adopted in March. Walker initially said he didn’t plan to push for Right to Work. But the state’s conservative legislature, with the vocal support of its conservative media establishment, pushed forward anyway.

“They can get these stories into the bloodstream, they can push reforms,” said Collin Roth, the managing editor of Right Wisconsin. “Right to Work was a perfect example.”

Others differ; Larson calls them “dangerous” and says they exist “solely to push corporate interests.”

And now that the governor is looking to cut funds for the University of Wisconsin system as part of his 2015 budget proposal, MacIver is again playing a key role as advocate and attack dog.

So it’s sort of understandable that anti-Walker protesters would chase around the MacIver Institute’s junior-level interns. MacIver—with the help of Bradley Foundation funding—has been an integral part of Wisconsin conservatives’ efforts to push Walker to the right and then to make his rightward migration politically safe.