Will Wisconsin Join the Tea Party?
Right-wing groups and the grassroots evaluate candidates
tea party movement’s blessing may help a candidate during a Republican primary,
a contest in which most voters are entrenched conservatives who distrust
President Obama and want to repeal health care reform. But whether a tea
party-backed candidate can win over independents, moderates and ex-Republicans
in a general election in a blue state like Wisconsin is anyone’s guess.
“It’s a very
interesting dance that these candidates have to do,” said Mike McCabe,
executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC). “They have to
reach out to the tea party groups and distance themselves at the same time. I
think the tea party can be a curse as well as a blessing for them.”
political science professor Mordecai Lee said the tea party movement is an
example of a long-standing divide in the Republican Party between Wall Street
Republicans and Main Street Republicans, a conflict that broke out into the
open in the 1964 race between conservative Barry Goldwater and the more
moderate Nelson Rockefeller.
period of three or four years the conservative activists at the grassroots
gradually took over the Republican Party and essentially kicked out the country
club, cosmopolitan sort of knee-jerk pro-business Wall Street wing of the
party,” Lee said.
today’s tea parties part of mainstream Republicanism? Or is their brand of
conservatism too extreme for the average voter?
commended the tea party groups for insisting that the Republican Party stand
for something, but he said that the tea partiers’ insistence on ideological
purity could be its downfall.
leading the Republicans off the cliff?” Lee wondered.
Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski said that although the tea
parties seem to be this season’s media darlings, their influence on the general
election would be minimal.
the only ones who have a say in these elections,” Zielinski said. “There are
other people who will vote in November who don’t fit this demographic.”
Wisconsin’s 90 or so tea parties are fiercely
independent and difficult to categorize. The main statewide organization is the
Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity
(AFP), which formed as an anti-tax, pro-free market group in 2007.
AFP-Wisconsin is led by former Republican operative Mark Block and has latched
on to the tea party movement.
looking for the tea party movement to level off,” Block said. “But people are
still enthusiastic about it.”
AFP is the
creation of the Koch brothers, rabidly conservative oil executives whose
combined wealth ($32 billion) and right-wing pedigree (their father helped to
found the John Birch Society) make them formidable forces on the right.
is part of the Wisconsin Prosperity Network (WPN), a relatively new umbrella
organization whose plans were first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal in May 2009.
that report, WPN was looking for $6.4 million annually to build on a few
existing right-wing groups and to create 14 new groups. (Block disputes that
As of now,
those groups include AFP-Wisconsin; First Freedoms Foundation, which works on
legal issues; the MacIver Institute, a right-wing media outlet; American Majority,
a national group set up to recruit conservative candidates for office; and
Prosperity 101, which “educates employees in their workplace about the link
between their job security and business prosperity” and public policy, as WPN’s
Linda Hansen told a tea party crowd.
website states that its application for tax-exempt recognition is pending.
Members can pay annual dues of $500 to become a “prosperity warrior,” which
includes materials from its affiliated groups, free admission to events and a
WPN lapel pin.
said that AFP is drawing money and attention to what had been rumbling around
within conservative and libertarian groups at the grassroots level.
it into an Astro-turf movement,” McCabe said.
While AFP is
the main statewide corporate-style organization, has national support and knows
how to play the media, AFP isn’t the only game in town. There’s another
AFP-less coalition of roughly 70 Wisconsin
patriot groups, said Tim Dake of Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty. This
coalition—comprised of local and regional groups that formed within the last
year or so—is sponsoring pre-primary debates and will then decide if it will
form a political action committee (PAC), which can endorse a candidate.
individual groups cannot endorse candidates because of their tax-exempt status.
But groups can “educate voters” about their chosen issues without forming a PAC
and endorsing a candidate.
of the Rock River Patriots said his organization—founded last year—is
developing a pledge they want candidates to sign and is considering setting up
a PAC. Currently, the group is vetting
candidates and meeting to discuss issues important to them—the Constitution,
the Patriot Act, immigration.
said tea party groups aren’t automatically supportive of Republican candidates
put forward by the party.
to get candidates from our movement to run for office,” Horvatin said. “We want
to take back the Republican Party.”
Dake of the
GrandSons of Liberty said recent tea party successes in Iowa County
races show that their candidates can win.
“If we don’t
like the candidates that are running, we’ll put our own people up,” Dake said.
Johnson’s Turbulent Candidacy
visible tea party candidate in Wisconsin is
U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh
businessman who came out of nowhere, delivered two speeches at tea party
rallies about his love of “freedom,” and won the Republican endorsement.
River Patriots’ Horvatin was scratching his head about that one.
even know who he was,” Horvatin said.
that Johnson seems to be connected to the Oshkosh
tea party, which isn’t part of the main patriot group coalition, and that
Johnson wasn’t technically a “tea party candidate” even though Johnson has
danced around that question.
been no endorsement,” Dake said.
have also been raised about Johnson’s opposition to a bill that would allow
victims of clergy sex abuse to get their day in court; his support of racist Bell Curve author Charles Murray; and
his enthusiasm for drilling in the Great Lakes.
said that Johnson’s perceived close relationship to the tea party movement
could hurt him in the election.
to imagine that all of the Republican pragmatists are whispering in his ear
that if he wants to win the election he’s got to tone down his tea party
positions,” Lee said. “You’ve got to imagine the mental wrestling he’s engaging
in within his own psyche of ‘How expedient do I want to be’ versus ‘How pure do
I want to remain?’ I think that’s a very tough dilemma.”
days, Johnson’s former rival, developer Terrence Wall, told a Madison radio reporter that he believes that
Johnson bought the Republican endorsement. Horvatin told the Shepherd he’s heard the same rumors.
Johnson’s campaign didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s
request to comment for this article, but has denied Wall’s allegations.
spoke to the Rock River Patriots and got a lukewarm reception because, Horvatin
said, the candidate didn’t have specific positions on issues that are important
to the group.
Johnson’s Republican Party endorsement wasn’t exactly a plus.
felt disenfranchised by the endorsement,” Horvatin said. “That’s why the
primary exists. The voters should decide.”
has hosted the other Republican still in the race, David Westlake, who seems to
be a dream tea party candidate—he’s an outsider, he opposes the Patriot Act,
and he actively wants tea party support. While Horvatin didn’t say if Westlake would be his group’s favored candidate to take on
Sen. Russ Feingold, Dake said that Westlake
is “very popular with the tea party groups.”
Neumann, Swift-Boating Lassa
activists are planning to make their presence known in races at all levels of
governor’s race, both former Congressman Mark Neumann and Milwaukee County
Executive Scott Walker have appeared at tea party rallies around the state.
While both appear to be solid conservatives, UWM’s Lee said that Neumann seems
to be a better fit for the tea party movement.
Scott Walker represents the sort of modern Republican Party,” Lee said. “He has
conservative principles, but a lot of his principles are driven by whatever
business wants or by talk radio.”
He said Walker’s endorsement by
Republican Party leaders could work against him in a year that may favor
some of the grassroots will follow the party, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed
that all of them will,” Lee said.
Dake said that
“behind the scenes there’s been a lot of work done” on the gubernatorial race,
although the coalition hasn’t decided if it would back one of these candidates.
“It’s one of
the most contentious issues right now,” Dake said.
the race to replace retiring Congressman David Obey, in which two conservative
Republicans—reality TV figure and Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy
and organic farmer Dan Mielke—are competing to take on state Sen. Julie Lassa,
a Democrat, in the general election.
seems to be the front-runner and has gotten the endorsement of Sarah Palin—who
has a mixed record in picking winners—Mielke would also be a good fit for the
tea party movement.
Block wouldn’t comment on the Duffy/Mielke matchup, but his organization
protested Lassa’s voting record on its “Sick of Spending Tour” a few weeks ago.
Block called it “voter education,” and promised more of it in this race.
The tour was announced by CRC Public Relations, a Virginia-based PR agency whose clients have included the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the Federalist Society, the Republican National Committee and the Christian Coalition. In Wisconsin, the firm was involved in races for the state Supreme Court, siding with conservative candidates Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman, both of whom won their races.