In February, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took time away from the great fight of his political life to engage in a 20-minute phone conversation with a caller he thought was billionaire conservative campaign donor David Koch.
Walker knew David Koch only by reputation: as a huge donor to independent groups that backed his 2010 run for the governorship and the campaigns of anti-labor, anti–open government, anti–local democracy candidates like him.
In the course of the conversation, Walker and the caller (actually blogger Ian Murphy) that the governor thought was one of the chief funders of the group Americans for Prosperity compared notes on what AFP could do to assist state senators who backed the governor’s agenda.
“Yeah,” the Koch caller said, “now what else could we do for you down there?”
Walker replied that “the biggest thing would be-and your guy on the ground [Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips]” to help shore up Republican state senators in their districts. “So one thing, per your question is, the more groups that are encouraging people not just to show up but to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor, the better,” Walker said. “Because the more they get that reassurance, the easier it is for them to vote yes.”
“Right,” the Koch caller said, ”right.”
Walker continued: “The other thing is more long-term, and that is, after this, um, you know the coming days and weeks and months ahead, particularly in some of these, uh, more swing areas, a lot of these guys are gonna need, they don’t necessarily need ads for them, but they’re gonna need a message out reinforcing why this was a good thing to do for the economy and a good thing to do for the state. So to the extent that that message is out over and over again, that’s obviously a good thing.”
Admittedly, the governor was not very articulate.
But his message was clear enough. Walker wanted a Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), to step in and help the Republican legislators who sided with him—even in the face of massive opposition from their constituents.
Now that Wisconsin has reached the "more long-term" moment of which Walker spoke in that February call, AFP is all in.
Next Tuesday, six of those Republican state senators face recall elections.
And what is Americans for Prosperity doing?
This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported: “In recent days, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has sent out absentee ballot applications to voters—including Democratic activists—in two state Senate recall districts with instructions to return the material after the date of the election.… In recent days, the state chapter of AFP mailed out fliers telling voters to return the absentee ballot applications to their city clerk before Aug. 11, even though the election date for the two districts receiving the mailers is Aug. 9.”
The AFP team peddled the line that they had somehow forgotten to check the details of a key mailing for election on which they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from their out-of-state funders—including David Koch and his billionaire brother Charles.
That’s hard to believe, especially when other groups aligned with AFP have sent out absentee ballots with the same inaccurate date. It is a lot easier to believe We Are Wisconsin’s Kelly Steele, who says, “This is voter suppression in its purest, most vile form.”
But one thing is certain: the hope that Governor Walker expressed in February for an intervention by the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity on behalf of his legislative allies is being realized. And that intervention has maintained the ethical standard set by a governor who—in the same conversation with the Koch caller—discussed sending agent provocateurs into the streets around the state Capitol with the purpose of provoking violent confrontations. The crowds of Wisconsin teachers, parents, students and public- and private-sector workers that had gathered outside the Capitol to challenge Walker’s agenda were peaceful and packed with children. Yet, when asked about sending in troublemakers, the governor said, “We thought about that.” The only thing that made Walker pause was the prospect that the violence might not play well politically.
Now, the governor’s supporters stand accused not of plotting a physical assault but of assaulting democracy with a voter-suppression stunt that seeks to game elections that his legislative handmaidens could lose.
This may be Scott Walker’s way of playing politics. But it is not how Wisconsin does things, or how any American state should do things.
Perhaps this is why so many voters—Democrats, independents and responsible Republicans—have stepped up to support the recalls of Wisconnsin senators who aligned with the governor rather than the best interests of the state. Engaged citizens recognize that the fight in Wisconsin is not about partisan differences or ideological disagreements. It is about right and wrong. And just as it is wrong to talk about provoking violence in order to undermine the right of the people to peaceably assemble, so it is wrong to try and suppress the vote in order to undermine democracy.