By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A court decision ending an investigation into the activities of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign could transform Wisconsin elections — likely enabling closer ties between candidates and organizations that support them and possibly leading to more targeted advertising and favorable legislation for the groups, political strategists and observers say.
The ruling in the case involving Walker, now a presidential candidate, and outside groups backing him invalidated state election officials’ belief that organizations that coordinate with candidates on issue advocacy must reveal their donations and follow fundraising limits as if the groups are an extension of the campaign.
That opens the door to unlimited spending by outside groups on advertising that campaigns will be able to direct and manage and the state can’t track. Candidates could encourage donors who have reached their limit on direct contributions to donate to organizations working on their behalf.
“(Political donors) don’t like the fact their names are disclosed. This way they can give secretly,” said Jay Heck, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin. “Why would you contribute a disclosed contribution of $10,000 when you can avoid the hassle of people knowing who you are and contribute an unlimited amount of money to an issue ad? This is a brave new world.”
Questions about the investigation have dogged Walker for months, a period in which he also has been raising his national profile ahead of his announcement that he was joining the presidential race. Barring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling makes his quest for the White House smoother as he courts voters in early primary states.
The case concerned political activity conducted by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative organizations during the 2012 recall effort against Walker, which was spurred by Democrats’ anger over his law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers.
Court documents released last year offer a partial indication of how coordination could work going forward. Those documents show Walker’s campaign aides told him to let donors know they could make unlimited donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth without having the contributions publicly disclosed. The club then funneled the money to other conservative groups that advertised on the governor’s behalf.
Heck warned that closer relationships between candidates and outside groups will lead to quid pro quo policies and legislation benefiting the groups. “It’s just going to enable candidates and outside groups to do a lot more things,” he said. “That makes those outside groups very valuable to the candidate and they’re more beholden to them. It really puts citizens on the sidelines.”
Republican campaign strategists see such coordination as free speech, and the Supreme Court ruling an affirmation of the ability of all groups to express their views.
“You’re going to see more freedom of speech and how people choose to express themselves, whether it’s through advertising, digital, social media. Whatever medium they choose to use, they could,” said Brandon Scholz, a veteran GOP campaign strategist. “It’s going to mean more free-flowing donations to groups on both sides. It will be more money going into elections. If you want to change that, change the U.S. Constitution and freedom of speech.”
David Rivkin, an attorney who represents Wisconsin Club for Growth, said candidates have been talking with outside groups and helping them raise money for decades.
“You can have a political campaign talk to a social welfare group and tell them we want to emphasize our era of environmental success. ‘What do you think is the best way to explain this?'” he said. “That’s called collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
At least three groups named in the investigation, including Club for Growth, spent heavily on getting the four conservative justices who penned the opinion elected. Two of the four refused prosecution calls to recuse themselves. That could form the basis for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, although lead prosecutor Francis Schmitz hasn’t said whether he’ll pursue that avenue.
Democrats said they’re ready to play the game by the new rules.
“While we firmly believe that people want to see less, not more, money in politics,” state Democratic Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said, “we ultimately will work within the bounds of the law to ensure we can take advantage of every available resource to help us.”