Why Walker Has Split With Conservatives
He’s at odds with the right-wing and Wall Street Journal over John Doe probe. But why?
Suddenly, pigs can fly and conservatives are angry at Gov. Scott Walker. Walker, the darling of the right-wing nationally, and likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination, was blasted in a Tuesday editorial by the Wall Street Journal, which essential accused Walker of putting his personal ambitions above moral principles. “Sounds like Mr. Walker has to decide whose side he’s on — his own, or the larger principles he claims to represent,” the editorial declared.
The editorial claimed that Steven Biskupic, the attorney representing Walker’s compaign committee, has been negotiating with Francis Schmitz, special prosecutor in the John Doe probe, to reach some kind of compromise to settle the case. The investigation has for nearly two years been looking into potentially illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and third party conservative advocacy groups like the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Walker hasn’t denied these negotiations have taken place. And they have an obvious benefit for him, putting the probe — and its endless distractions — behind him, as he works to get reelected governor in a race that’s currently a statistical tie. But the conservative third party groups, led by Erik O’Keefe, head of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, don’t want a settlement to this case. O’Keefe hired a top Washington, D.C. attorney, David Rifkin, to sue Schmitz and all the prosecutors involved in the John Doe probe, accusing them of violating the civil rights of those under investigation. And O’Keefe and his fellow conservatives clearly believe they have a strong case — and have told this to the Wall Street Journal.
“Based on the evidence and legal judgements we’ve seen, the prosecutors should be on the defensive, not Mr. Walker,” the WSJ editorial noted.
As Rivkin’s statement to the media put it, while the Wisconsin Club for Growth “fights for its First Amendment rights to speak out on the issue, the Walker campaign apparently seeks to negotiate a settlement with the prosecutors that will keep the issue out of the spotlight.”
The answer revolves around O’Keefe, a smart, wealthy, tactically sophisticated activist who has an agenda shared by the Koch Brothers, to change the laws on campaign finance. Once again, Wisconsin is ground zero for a national, partisan battle that could reverberate across the land. But in this case there are also divisions among Republicans, who are split on whether to support Walker or O’Keefe.
The connections between O’Keefe and the Koch brothers, as I’ve previously written, go back to at least 1979, when David Koch decided to run for vice-president on the Libertarian ticket (with Ed Clark as the presidential candidate). O’Keefe worked full-time in the Libertarian presidential campaign, rising to the National Field Coordinator. In 1980, he was elected National Director of the Libertarian Party. “Early in his libertarian days, O’Keefe became friendly with the Koch brothers, with whom he has joined in many battles,” as a story in the Washington Post recounted.
The election effort was a formative learning experience for the Koch Brothers, as a recent story in the New York Times reported. But within a few years, both Koch and O’Keefe would leave the Libertarian Party and became involved in building a powerful network of political non-profits that are exempt from most campaign reporting requirements and contribution limits.
Koch was an avowed opponent of the post-Watergate reforms that created these limitations, as the Times reported. The law “makes my blood boil,” Koch wrote in a letter to Libertarian Party members.
O’Keefe has been “a chief organizer of several independent conservative groups that are raising millions nationwide,” the Post story noted. “From his rural home west of Madison [in Spring Green], O’Keefe is chairman of the Sam Adams Alliance, which funds groups that train tea party activists. He is also chairman of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which has spent $1 million on TV ads to support Walker’s effort to make state workers “pay their fair share.” And he is co-founder of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a new super PAC that is spending millions on ads attacking incumbent members of Congress.”
O’Keefe became a master of using these groups to attack incumbent politicians of both parties, but mostly Democrats. By law, these groups need not disclose the names of donors, because they are not engaged in trying to elect candidates. But O’Keefe would time the ads to run during campaigns and attack certain candidates, though without explicitly urging people to vote any particular way. Under the law this was allowed but the groups were barred from coordinating with the campaign committees of any candidates.
But O’Keefe has argued that such coordination should be allowed, since these groups are not technically involved in electioneering. And during the 2012 recall election, O’Keefe was friendly with Walker and hired longtime Republican operative R.J. Johnson as a consultant for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, even as Johnson served as an advisor to Walker’s campaign. These connections raised suspicions that there has been coordination between the campaign and the third party group, which would be illegal, and probably helped trigger the John Doe investigation launched by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who brought on Schmitz as lead prosecutor.
The Doe probe was quite aggressive in its investigation of conservative advocacy groups who supported Walker’s recall election, and O’Keefe is said to be outraged by the techniques used. For confirmation, you need only check the stories of the conservative Wisconsin Reporter, the non-profit newspaper whose funding comes from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which in turn got much of its funding from the Sam Adams Alliance which O’Keefe still runs. To date the newspaper has done no less than 73 stories on “Wisconsin’s Secret War” which have condemned the “paramilitary style pre-dawn raids” on conservatives by the Doe investigators; they have made life for O’Keefe and other conservatives “a living hell,” the paper has charged.
As for Walker’s attempt to negotiate a settlement with Schmitz, it’s “a deal with the devil,” the paper complains.
O’Keefe seems to want to punish the prosecutors for what he sees as a violation of the civil rights and freedom of speech of the conservative groups. His federal lawsuit has targeted the prosecutors both professionally and personally, and his lawyer David Rivkin told Charlie Sykes he intends to squeeze the prosecutors “like grapes.” O’Keefe and conservatives have also flirted with launching a recall effort against Chisholm, as I’ve reported.
Meanwhile, Federal Judge Rudolph Randa has made a ruling that essentially accepted O’Keefe’s argument that any coordination between third party groups and the Walker campaign or any campaign is legal. This would legalize the use of unlimited “dark money” for any elections, and effectively end all restrictions on compaign donations. For O’Keefe, the Koch brothers, and the Wall Street Journal, this is exactly the ruling they hoped for, which could go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the current make-up of the court, it wouldn’t be a shock if they agreed with Randa.
Considering these huge stakes, Walker’s concern about putting the Doe probe behind him is small potatoes. Walker’s campaign committee has released a statement saying they are not parties in O’Keefe’s federal lawsuit and thus cannot negotiate any settlement to it. But Walker and his campaign haven’t addressed whether they are attempting, through Biskupic, to negotiate a settlement to the Doe probe. And O’Keefe clearly doesn’t want that, because it might make his lawsuit moot, and because it might frustrate his goal of crushing the prosecutors.
Indeed, O’Keefe has just upped the ante, launching a suit against the state Government Accountability Board for “spending illegally on the secret John Doe probe and violating his rights under state law.”
By now, both Walker and the Doe prosecutors have every incentive to end the probe. O’Keefe’s legal blitzkrieg is probably scaring the bejesus out of the prosecutors, while making it difficult for a governor to talk about anything but John Doe.
Newspaper accounts give the impression that it was Biskupic who approached Schmitz about settling the Doe probe. The two both worked in the Milwaukee U.S. Attorney’s office and were both on short list for the job of U.S. Attorney. (President George W. Bush ultimately selected Biskupic.)
I have heard a counter-theory that it was Schmitz who approached Biskupic about a settlement. When I asked Biskupic via email whether that is what happened, he replied, “Thanks, but I have no comment.”