Wisconsin’s current political landscape looks wildly different than it did just a few years ago. Long a state with reliably Democratic leanings, everything changed in 2010 when conservative outside groups helped flip the state legislature and governor’s office from blue to red.
Led by Governor Scott Walker, the state’s new Republican leadership quickly set about imposing its extreme conservative agenda. They introduced an assault on collective bargaining rights that effectively cut public workers’ pay and destroyed their ability to negotiate over health coverage, safety, or sick leave. The severity of the bill prompted impassioned protests centered around the state capitol and forced Republican lawmakers to use underhanded measures to pass it without a single Democrat. Although a judge initially blocked the law because of the Republican tactics, it was reinstated by the state Supreme Court, which had maintained a conservative majority thanks to a narrowly re-elected justice whose campaign got significant support from right-wing interest groups.
In 2011, Republicans enacted one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country – although it was later placed on hold due to court challenges – as well as a Stand Your Ground-style gun law and a measure allowing concealed weapons in public parks, bars, and near schools. They also passed a budget cutting taxes for businesses and the wealthy, increasing the burden on low-income families, and slashing $800 million from K-12 education in a way that hit high-poverty districts the hardest. The next year, they passed an abstinence-only education bill and limited certain types of abortions. In 2013, Walker signed one bill forcing medically unnecessary ultrasounds on women seeking abortions and another – currently under injunction – imposing requirements that could force some of the state’s abortion clinics to close. So far this year, Republicans have stalled a minimum wage increase, interfered with local minimum wage laws, and further limited voting opportunities.
The unpopularity of Walker’s anti-worker bill sparked a movement to recall the governor, lieutenant governor, and several state senators. However, an all-out assault of cash and support from conservative groups helped nearly all of them survive their recalls. Just a few months after the final recall contests, thanks in large part to partisan gerrymandering that occurred after their 2010 victories, the GOP repeated its success in the 2012 general elections. The Republican Party’s good fortune in the Badger State wasn’t merely a mirror of the Tea Party wave that benefited Republicans across the nation in 2010; it was part of a strategy crafted on the national level and carried out with the cooperation of prominent conservative interest groups and donors, including Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers’ company heavily supported Walker’s 2010 campaign and spent on behalf of 16 Republican state candidates, all of whom won their elections. Yet the Wisconsin branch of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-founded and -financed group, made an even bigger splash, reportedly spending $10 million to support Walker’s policy agenda and buying ads during his recall election.
Along with the Kochs, the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation helped fuel the surge in Wisconsin by doling out money to a wide variety of conservative advocacy groups. As Bradley Foundation president Michael Grebe, who also chaired Walker’s gubernatorial and recall campaigns, put it, “In some way or another, most (local) conservatives, I guess, would have a connection to us.”
The state-based groups working to support the right-wing agenda include Wisconsin Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America (funded almost entirely by Wisconsin Club for Growth), Wisconsin Right to Life, the DeVos-linked American Federation for Children, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Driving the plot from the national level were the Republican State Leadership Committee, which planned and largely bankrolled a nationwide strategy to control redistricting, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
According to news reports, a number of the above groups are involved in an ongoing investigation into whether they illegally coordinated with Republican candidates during Wisconsin’s recall elections.