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Email dump makes political hurdles for Walker

New revelations from an old scandal have left Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's political future looking much hazier.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets supporters at an election-night rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, June, 2012.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets supporters at an election-night rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, June, 2012.

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has for months been positioning himself as a potential 2016 presidential contender. But new details found in emails from a criminal investigation into former aides have thrown into question his national prospects -- not to mention a potentially strong Democratic gubernatorial challenger forcing him to fight for political survival at home.

The newly released emails suggest Walker knew about and communicated over a secret network set up to coordinate between his 2010 gubernatorial campaign staff and his staff in the office of the Milwaukee County Executive, where he served for 8 years. They also contain offensive “joke” emails and derogatory references to the mentally ill.

Walker became the first governor to survive a recall effort in 2012, after more than a million people signed petitions in the wake of his successful push to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions in Wisconsin. His morally upstanding Eagle Scout persona, his defeat of the unions and his victory in the recall election have made him an attractive candidate for Republicans seeking a 2016 presidential contender who can prevail in purple states.

But the emails and an ongoing investigation into whether conservative groups illegally coordinated with Walker’s recall election campaign could have serious implications for Walker’s national future. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s fortunes have waned over the continuing “Bridgegate” scandal, Walker has moved to take his place as a favorite for 2016.

Increased scrutiny often has more risks than potential rewards, as Christie and now Walker can attest.

The newly released emails show clearly illegal activity by members of Walker’s inner circle and were part of the case that led to criminal convictions for six aides. When a Marquette University Law School Poll done just before the 2012 recall election asked about the investigation into his 2010 campaign (called a “John Doe investigation” due to privacy requirements in state law) 77% of respondents were aware of it, but opinion on whether it mattered was split evenly by voters’ partisan leanings.

Now that new documents are available, “unless there’s the proverbial smoking gun here, some new piece of information that overrides partisan perceptions, the same sort of partisan effect seems likely to persist,” Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll told msnbc.

Walker himself told the Associated Press that he doesn’t see the new revelations as a threat. “These people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin so they are going to be circling again today. It’s exactly what’s wrong with the political process that they’re hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin. It’s not. They’re going to do what they’ve done in the past which is over-hype things, and politically they’re going to be disappointed,” he said.

Walker’s popularity has remained steady for the past two years, but Wisconsin voters remain deeply divided along partisan lines. A new Marquette University Law School Poll released last month put the Governor’s approval rating at 49%, slightly down from his average of 49.9%. And while the poll found Walker leading likely Democratic challenger Mary Burke by a 47-41 percent margin, that relatively narrow gap has alarmed Walker allies, who are already spending money to support his re-election effort.

Opinions on the investigations remain sharply divided along partisan lines as well; three quarters of Republicans dismissed the probe as politically motivated, the same portion of Democrats viewed it as a serious issue.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a pro-business lobbying group, has already spent $1 million on pro-Walker ads, and the Republican Governor’s Association just released an ad attacking Burke this week. While Burke has the support of major PACs like EMILYs List, she has yet to receive the same sort of help. With so much attention to the race nine months before the election, Walker has had no choice but to focus on defeating Burke instead of  burnishing his standing as a potential 2016 contender.

While racist jokes and illegal campaign work don’t carry the same shock value as the politically motivated traffic jams hampering Christie, Democrats in Wisconsin see the emails as proof that Walker is not as virtuous as he’s portrayed himself.

Walker has long denied knowledge of illegal activities within his office and was not charged in the investigation, but “[the emails] raise serious questions about his ethics and trustworthiness as a politician and public official,” Mike Brown, deputy director of One Wisconsin Now, a progressive group in the state, told msnbc. “Beyond the criminal convictions, we’re really getting a picture of Governor Walker’s character, and it’s not a pretty one.”

Watchdog groups in Wisconsin hope the extra attention leads to more disclosure from the investigation into illegal campaign work in 2010 and more information about the second investigation into illegal coordination with conservative interest groups in the 2012 recall, which is still ongoing.

“We’ve been living under this for a long time, and there were pieces that we were aware of, but the overall picture of this shows him being very much in charge” of his campaign and public offices while they worked together, Mary Bottari, Deputy Director of the Center for Media and Democracy told msnbc.

“If there’s nothing to hide, let’s see all the emails,” Bottari said.

If more information is released or if a second John Doe investigation leads to more damaging revelations, Walker could he emerge with too much baggage to be a viable national contender even if he does win re-election as governor in November.

“If there are concerns, it’s not about the gubernatorial race, it’s probably what the long term impact of this is,” Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told msnbc. “He can’t openly campaign for president for the next nine months because one of the things that actually could seriously hurt him in the gubernatorial race is if it becomes very clear that he doesn’t want the job. That kind of ambitions has undermined a lot of careers, and it could hurt him.”

It’s on that front that comparisons between Christie and Walker look right. As the investigation into Bridgegate has stretched from weeks to months, Christie’s popularity and viability as a party leader has dropped dramatically.

“It’s clear that both of these men appear to be very ambitious and are angling for higher office,” Mike Brown of one Wisconsin Now said. “They’ve built careers on a system where they draw no distinction between political ambitions and public service. Everything is used to further their political ambitions.”