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Will Wisconsin Join the Tea Party?

Right-wing groups and the grassroots evaluate candidates

Jun. 30, 2010
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While we don’t yet know the full extent of tea party involvement in this year’s races, we do know the tea party coalition in Wisconsin is evaluating candidates—mostly Republican candidates—for office.

Having the 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.”

UW-Milwaukee 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.

“Over a 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.

But are today’s tea parties part of mainstream Republicanism? Or is their brand of conservatism too extreme for the average voter?

Lee 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.

“Is this leading the Republicans off the cliff?” Lee wondered.

Democratic 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.

“They aren’t 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.”

Right-Wing Establishment

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.

“I keep 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.

AFP-Wisconsin 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.

According to 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 report.)

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.

WPN’s 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.

WDC’s McCabe said that AFP is drawing money and attention to what had been rumbling around within conservative and libertarian groups at the grassroots level.

“They turned it into an Astro-turf movement,” McCabe said.

The Grassroots

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.

Some 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.

Dan Horvatin 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.

Horvatin said tea party groups aren’t automatically supportive of Republican candidates put forward by the party.

“We’d like 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.

Ron Johnson’s Turbulent Candidacy

The most 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.

Even Rock River Patriots’ Horvatin was scratching his head about that one.

“We didn’t even know who he was,” Horvatin said.

Dake 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.

“There has been no endorsement,” Dake said.

Questions 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.

UWM’s Lee said that Johnson’s perceived close relationship to the tea party movement could hurt him in the election.

“You’ve got 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.”

In recent 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.

Johnson 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.

He said Johnson’s Republican Party endorsement wasn’t exactly a plus.

“Some people felt disenfranchised by the endorsement,” Horvatin said. “That’s why the primary exists. The voters should decide.”

The group 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.”

Walker v. Neumann, Swift-Boating Lassa

Tea party activists are planning to make their presence known in races at all levels of government.

In the 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.

“I think 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 outsiders.

“I think 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.

Then there’s 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.

While Duffy 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.

AFP-Wisconsin’s 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.


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