The public learned yesterday that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has been implicated in an alleged “criminal scheme” in which he and his team ignored state election laws during his recall fight. Part of the trouble for the governor is that the evidence against him looks quite damaging.
In a nutshell, Wisconsin election laws prohibit officials from coordinating campaign activities with outside political groups. In this case, there’s ample reason to believe the governor was personally involved in overseeing how outside groups – including some allegedly non-partisan non-profits – spent their campaign resources. Indeed, Walker wrote an email to Karl Rove talking about it, and another message, a top Walker aide boasted about “owning” one of the supposedly independent groups.
The governor, facing a tough re-election fight, told reporters yesterday he “can’t imagine” sending an email to Rove about coordination – an email we’ve now seen and don’t need to imagine – and pointed to a court ruling that “didn’t buy into the argument that has been presented” by prosecutors.
That ruling has since been overturned, and as Alec MacGillis explained, it was based on a rather bizarre legal premise.
In ordering a halt to the investigation in May, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, a Republican appointee who has been active in conservative judicial-activist circles, argued that there was no problem with coordination between Walker and outside groups because it wasn’t as if the groups were trying to bring Walker over to their side by funding his anti-recall campaign: “[Wisconsin Club for Growth] obviously agree[s] with Governor Walker’s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians,” Randa wrote in his ruling. “Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”This is a striking claim, reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings against limits on campaign contributions– that limits can only be justified as bars against explicit attempts to bribe politicians to change their stances on issues. But that’s not what at issue in the John Doe II investigation – the question is whether the outside groups exerted undue influence over the outcome of the recall by skirting the state’s rules on coordination. It is whether the state’s electoral system was corrupted, not whether Walker was.
Which is very likely why this ruling did not stand – it was based on the premise that when it comes to campaign-finance limits, pretty much anything goes.
What’s more, if the allegations are true, it’s worth appreciating just how sloppy Walker was in this mess.
Election laws prohibiting coordination are practically ubiquitous, but in general, few ever face charges of breaking these laws. After all, coordination is hard to prove. Everyone suspects it happens all the time, but unless there’s an actual paper trail in which elected officials send an email talking about coordination, proving it is often impossible.
Which is why it seems remarkable that in Wisconsin, Scott Walker did exactly that. As Jon Chait explained:
Violating the spirit of campaign finance laws is really easy, as long as you take a few basic precautions such as not sending an email describing your control of expenditures that are supposed to be outside your control….. The most benign possibility is that Walker is quickly cleared, but the facts of the case would still raise serious questions about his intelligence. Sending an email explaining your plan to coordinate what’s supposed to be independent spending to the guy whose job it is to avoid campaign coordination is like if Walter White decided to cook meth in his high school chemistry classroom during school.
For the governor’s part, the news appears to have rattled him a bit: no doubt fearing political blowback, Walker reserved $250,000 worth of TV air time yesterday.
The words “criminal scheme” probably won’t be included in the spots, though they’ll loom large over the governor’s campaign.