Top 1% Fills Gov. Scott Walker’s Recall War Chest With $25 Million

Roger Bybee

Gov. Scott Walker prepares to speak to reporters after a meeting of the National Governors Association in February 2012 in Washington, D/C.

Spending blitzkrieg will intensify, with recall election 4 weeks later

MILWAUKEE, WIS. — It’s people power versus money power,” declared Robert Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, reflecting on the build-up to the June 5 recall election of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker.

Some 1 million Wisconsinites signed petitions triggered the recall, infuriated by Walker’s assault on public-sector worker rights, the slashing of crucial public services like education and health while granting $2.3 billion in new tax breaks for corporations. If Walker loses, it will mark only the third time in U.S. history that a governor has been expelled from office through a recall election.

The people power” of which Peterson speaks is manifested in door-knocking, meetings with neighbors and small acts of persuasion. But the money power” held by Gov. Walker represents a remarkable turn toward plutocracy in a state that pioneered campaign finance reform a century ago under Gov. Robert M. LaFollette and has long prided itself as being a laboratory for democracy. Walker has raised an astonishing $25 million, $13 million of it during just the last three months. 

As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported,

Criss-crossing the country on fundraising trips, Walker has raised more than $25 million since January 2011 and has $4.9 million in cash on hand — numbers unlike any that have been seen for a political candidate in Wisconsin. Two-thirds of Walker’s money came from out of state.

His stores of cash dwarf what his Democratic rivals have raised. …He has 10 times as much money on hand as his closet rival.

Walker’s ultra-wealthy supporters have been unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s unpopular Citizens United ruling—which affirms corporate personhood,” equates unlimited campaign spending with free speech, and allows corporations for the first time to contribute to candidates directly from their corporate treasuries.

Additionally, Walker and his backers are exploiting what the Journal-Sentinel explains as a quirk in Wisconsin law that allows unlimited fundraising while recalls are pending,” setting aside the usual limit of $10,000.

Walker has succeeded in unlocking the generosity of flinty CEOs and hedge-fund managers by warning that national union bosses” intend to spend untold millions to unseat him and impose their will on the state. Billionaire David Koch amplified the alarm to fellow plutocrats: If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”

With Walker’s approval rating at 47 percent (down from 51 percent in January), he is in a statistical dead heat with the leading Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is expected to win the Democratic primary election tomorrow, Tuesday May 8. So all the money amassed by Walker — and considerably smaller amounts from labor, progressive and Democratic sources — will be aimed at swaying a remarkably tiny portion of the electorate.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, described the situation:

Wisconsin’s never seen anything like this kind of money. This is all to persuade a relatively tiny universe of undecided voters. It’ll be the highest cost per voter spent in the history of the nation in terms of the cost of persuading people.

Walker’s bonanza has included checks of $500,000 apiece from right-wing Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks and Texan Robert Parry, the key funder of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which smeared Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record.

The Koch brothers have been deeply involved in trying to aid Walker, as David Koch boasted:

We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years,” Koch said. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”

Koch personally gave $1 million earlier this year to the Republican Governors Association, which is running ads statewide supporting Walker and criticizing the top two Democratic candidates - Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

Koch’s $1 million contribution comes on top of the cash that he and his brother, Charles, have given to Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by the pair that aired a series of ads earlier this year supporting Walker’s budget proposals.

With his vast treasury, Walker and his supporters have carpet-bombed the state with deceptive TV ads and a carefully-targeted program of mailings to Republican voters. They’re trying to bludgeon people of Wisconsin with constant TV ads, lots of mail, robocalls, phone calls — there’s just an oversaturation,” observed Bruce Colburn, an official of the Service Employees International Union and a central figure in the labor/​progressive coalition We Are Wisconsin. Walker’s trying to convey the idea that he has the money and he’s going to win, although all of the spending has shown very little effect.”


Yet major media outside Wisconsin, based on my survey of media coverage, have tended to portray the state’s recall fight as a battle of the checkbooks between Walker’s wealthy backers and similarly well-heeled labor unions. This depiction reinforces Walker’s false and hypocritical message about big government, public sector union bosses” targeting him with massive expenditures and attempting to buy” the election.

Moreover, even The New York Times has promoted the preposterous myth that corporations and unions have roughly equal resources for campaign contributions. In reality, corporations out-spent labor by a 15-1 margin in the 2008 federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Citizens United decision has only deepened the corporate advantage.

Nonetheless, The New York Times portrayed the Wisconsin recall fight as one of virtual equals where each side [is] empowered” by the Citizens United decision. The newspaper continues:

That ruling is not only giving wealthy donors like the Kochs greater options for pouring tens of millions of dollars into the presidential election. It is also giving unions — many of them representing workers in some of the major donors’ own factories [for example, the Kochs own a Georgia-Pacific factory where the United Steelworker membership is staunchly backing the recall] — the ability for the first time ever to spend money from union treasuries for campaigning among nonunion voters.

This portrayal, which downplays the threat to democracy represented by Walker’s overwhelming funding advantage, infuriates union leaders like Colburn.

This coverage is an outrage on two fronts,” he says. Walker’s donors only represent the 1% and they see in Walker someone who can carry their agenda in Wisconsin and across the nation. Second, the media misrepresents the money advantage, as if the money were the same on both sides.”

Even with Walker’s tens of millions, labor and its allies are undeterred and committed to fighting for democracy, said Milwaukee Teachers President Robert Peterson, a classroom teacher for the past 30 years:

The question comes down to whether we are going to acquiesce and live under a plutocracy with corporate rule, or fight for our democratic rights and build solid democratic institutions that — at least in theory — this country was built upon. I have always told my students that we need to have civic courage and to act as if we live in a democracy.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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