Scott Walker, an ardent Ronald Reagan fan from his youth, was never likely to follow Reagan’s footsteps to the White House. The Wisconsin governor lacks his hero’s way with words, skill for crossing lines of partisan and ideological division (especially within the Republican Party) and confidence on the national campaign trail.
Yet Walker has wanted to believe in the possibility so badly that he has spent the two years since his 2012 recall election win positioning himself as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He penned a campaign book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which was so transparent in its ambitions that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze refers to it as “the prototypical book about someone running for president who doesn’t want to come out and actually say that he is running for president.” He jetted off to Las Vegas to to try and impress Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, but Adelson missed the Wisconsinite´s speech. He even persisted in making the rounds nationally after polls showed that his enthusiasm for presidential politics did not sit well with the Wisconsin voters he must face in a November re-election bid.
But with the release of documents in which Wisconsin prosecutors allege Walker helped to engineer an expansive “criminal scheme” to coordinate efforts by conservative groups to help his recall campaign—by circumventing campaign finance laws—Walker’s presidential prospects look less realistic even than those of his mentor, scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The headlines in Wisconsin Thursday were damning:
“John Doe prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of ‘criminal scheme’”
“Prosecutors accuse Walker of running ‘criminal scheme’”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday.
Walker, his chief of staff and others were involved in the coordination effort with “a number of national groups and prominent figures,” including Karl Rove, says special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.
“[T]he evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities during the historic 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin Senate and Gubernatorial recall elections,” Schmitz wrote in a December motion, on behalf of five attorneys from some of the state’s most liberal counties, just now unsealed by an appellate court judge.
Even worse for a governor who has already had to try an explain away highly controversial emails from former aides, as well as the investigations, prosecutions and convictions of aides, appointees, allies and campaign donors, are the actual details of the documents that were ordered unsealed by Federal Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.
“The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that (veteran Wisconsin Republican operative R.J.) 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,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper.
The May 4, 2011, e-mail to Rove read: “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, who is certainly no stranger to controversy, claimed Thursday that he had been vindicated by judges who have restricted—and even attempted to shut down—the “John Doe” investigation into political wrongdoing. But other judges have sustained the inquiry.
Walker allies argue that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” organized by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other top prosecutors, who they allege are out to silence conservatives and harm Republicans. Chisholm is a Democrat, but he is also a respected prosecutor who has gone after Democrats and worked with Republicans.
Lawyers for targets of the probe are fighting to shut it down and, in this unsettled and uncertain post–Citizens United period with regard to state and national campaign finance laws, they believe they will succeed.
Attempts to halt the probe, which have been cheered on by advocates for a no-holds-barred “big money” politics, are part of a broader strategy to gut remaining campaign-finance laws. One way to super-charge the influence of major donors and corporate interests is to undermine bans on coordination between candidates and their campaigns with “independent” groups that operate under different and more flexible rules for raising and spending money during a campaign.
“If you don’t have restrictions on coordination, then the contribution limits become meaningless,” Paul S. Ryan, the senior counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, explained. Ryan told Politico that without the restrictions, a donor “could max out under the limits [for donating to a candidate], but then you could also just say to the candidates, ‘Hey give me an ad script and we’ll walk down to the TV station and do this ad for you.’”
But even if the probe is prevented from going forward, the documents that have now been released—in combination with the February release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized from the “secret e-mail system” computers of a former Walker aide who has been convicted of political wrongdoing—paint a picture of a governor whose political style does not say “statesman.”
There is no question that Walker is a hero to some Republicans, and to some conservatives.
But Republicans and conservatives who want to win back the White House have to be realistic enough to recognize that Walker has a paper trail that is unlikely to read well on the 2016 campaign trail.
In fact, if the Wisconsin polls that have Walker tied with Democratic challenger Mary Burke are to be believed, Walker might have trouble getting past the 2014 election.