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On Tuesday, June 5, in a hotel meeting room two thousand miles away from a recall election that was being watched coast to coast, the Washington State coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, Woody Hertzog, regaled a small group of Tea Partiers assembled in the Puget Sound town of Silverdale with tales of his recent campaigning trip in the Wisconsin trenches. Hertzog told the group that he and other Tea Party activists from across the country poured into the state, becoming a door-to-door army in support of Governor Walker. The election was still taking place halfway across the country, yet it was all these Puget Sound Tea Partiers wanted to talk about.  Midway through the meeting, the results from the Wisconsin special election came in. When it was announced that Governor Walker and other Tea Party-supported candidates were victorious, the room erupted in cheers and applause. One older man in the back of the room commented aloud, “I guess we can put away our guns, for now.”

Indeed, final results for the June 5 Wisconsin Recall Election showed Governor Walker with a 53%-46% edge over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.  Incumbent Republicans were also victorious in the Lieutenant Governor recall, and three of the four state senate recall elections; all by similar margins. Only in the State Senate 21st District, in southeast Wisconsin south of Racine, did challenger Democrat John Lehman defeat the incumbent Republican, Van Wanggard, 51%-49%.  Lehman’s victory means that Republicans will no longer have a majority in the state senate.

In examining what happened in Wisconsin, IREHR’s analysis points to four relevant factors: recall fatigue, procedural hurdles, money, and the Tea Party mobilization. If the Tea Party victory in the Indiana Republican Senate primary was the wakeup call reminding the country that Tea Party was still alive, the Wisconsin campaign put the Tea Party 2012 ground game on full display.

The Tea Party Made A Difference (Again)

Tea Party groups have been engaged in the recall fight from the beginning last year.  Starting in April, however, all of the national Tea Party factions ratcheted up their activity in Wisconsin. They built upon their already existing membership base in the state. With 6087 enrolled members as of May 2012, Wisconsin ranks 23th amongst all states in national Tea Party membership.  When considered on a per capita base, however, the state’s national faction membership level is only 42nd overall, near the bottom.  This lack of membership density may have been one of the reasons that national factions deployed so many out-of-state volunteers.

Map of Wisconsin Membership in National Tea Party Factions

Their rationale was simple and explicit. “Liberals are waging a war in Wisconsin and we must stop it before they bring it to other states around the country,” according to Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin. “Wisconsin could be the key to determining how the rest of this year plays out. If the Left is successful in Wisconsin, they will no doubt use their success as a model to spread havoc in other places around the country. We must stand with Wisconsin because if we Save Wisconsin, we can Save the Country!” she added to rally the troops.

On April 29th, local Tea Party Patriots groups across the country voted 98% to 2% to throw all their energy and resources into Wisconsin for the recall elections. “We are deploying hundreds of volunteers into each of the targeted recall districts,” noted Martin. “That’s 4,000 patriots going door to door and making phone calls! Our goal is to educate the voters in those key areas that Governor Walker’s policies are working and that turning back the clock on these reforms will bankrupt Wisconsin and lead to more economic misery. This will be Tea Party Patriot’s most advanced voter education effort ever.  We want to absolutely flood these targeted areas of Wisconsin with Tea Party citizen-volunteers,” she added.

Tea Party Patriots brought activists to Wisconsin and did door-to-door canvassing, and had others make calls from their homes and spread the word on social media. Some of those activists were sponsored, with their costs covered by Tea Party Patriots. Most, however, came on their own, volunteering their time to go door-to-door canvassing voters—a sign of their ardor for their beliefs.

As others have already noted, Tea Party Patriots, Inc., which is registered with the IRS as a 501c4 non-profit organization, may have run afoul of its tax exempt status with this electoral activity.  Federally registered non-profit organizations with a 501c4 status are prohibited from devoting all of their energy and resources to support electoral campaigns. At times, Martin and other Tea Party Patriots leaders have tried to suggest that the group was just engaged in GOTV (Get Out the Vote) efforts or some form of civic engagement, other times they’ve told their supporters that “Tea Party Patriots—in conjunction with other local and national Tea Party groups—will spearhead efforts to help Walker and other candidates.”

The Tea Party Patriots were joined by other national factions.  According to the website for Tea Party Express, “Wisconsin has become ground zero in the fight against labor union tyranny, and this battle is one we must win if we want to preserve our American Dream. 2012 is a decisive year for our nation’s future, and the momentum from these recalls in Wisconsin will be carried into Election Day in November. This is our chance to stand side-by-side with true conservative leaders and push back against the liberal agenda that threatens the America we know and love.”

This group brought its bus tour to Wisconsin twice in the last year, including a nine-city tour in August 2011 and a six-city stop in June 2012, which included their new mobile phone banking bus for a “massive GOTV push.”

The FreedomWorks Super PAC was also active on the ground. FreedomWorks for America set up eighteen distribution centers across the state to circulate materials through local Tea Party network and the website. The Super PAC distributed over 5,000 yard signs, 3,500 bumper magnets, and 50,000 door hangers across the state.

Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips, who last year compared Wisconsinites who protested against Walker to Hitler’s “Brown shirts,” kept the recall issue alive. He threw most of his support behind Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who he called “an amazing candidate.”

The Patriot Super PAC, run by the same people as the Patriot Action Network jumped into the race during the last week of the election with a radio ad supporting Walker. Patriot Action Network also sent a campaign fundraising appeal allegedly from the Walker campaign, which claimed the governor was “a paid sponsor of the Patriot Action Network.”

The 1776 Tea Party (aka also got into the act by distributing the same campaign fundraising email, claiming that the Walker campaign sponsored the email. The Walker campaign denied doing so, according to Stephanie Mencimer on the Mother Jones website.

Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers supported organization that has done some training of Tea Party outfits, also worked feverishly in Wisconsin.  It deployed sixty paid organizers on the ground. It was enough for the aforementioned Woody Hertzog to tell the Tea Party meeting in Silverdale that it seemed that just about every time he turned the corner out in Wausau, Wisconsin he’d see either the green shirts worn by Americans for Prosperity activists or the blue shirts of the Tea Party Patriots.

Wisconsin’s Tea Party Base

As was true in Indiana, the momentum from perpetual campaigning kept the Wisconsin Tea Party grassroots robust with only moderate attrition from previous years.  And the national groups piggybacked on the work of the many local Tea Party chapters in the state.

IREHR tracked 54 different local Tea Party chapters active in Wisconsin at the time of the election. The majority of the local chapters are aligned nationally with the Tea Party Patriots. Others maintain a connection to FreedomWorks.

Wisconsin Local Tea Party Chapters

Throughout this period, local Tea Party chapters in Wisconsin championed a wide range of far-right issues, including a most assured universal disdain of labor unions.  They also made racist birther attacks on President Obama, promoted anti-Indian bigotry, and Second Amendment and survivalist “preparedness.”  Christian nationalism, anti-environmental conspiracies, nativism, and Islamophobia, were also on their agenda, topped by debt, bailouts, and taxes.

Take, for instance, the Northwoods Patriots of Eagle River, Wisconsin. The group is affiliated with the Tea Party Patriots national Tea Party faction. As a member of the Wisconsin Patriot Coalition, the Northwoods Patriots work closely with other local Tea Party groups across the state. The group campaigned relentlessly for Walker. While the group spent much of the past two years attacking unions and supporting the governor’s tax cut legislation, their website engaged in racist conspiracy mongering about the president’s birth certificate and his religion. Also on the site were other conspiracy theories promoted by the group, including discussion of Agenda 21 and “the New World Order.” Leaders of the group have gone so far as to openly support the radical notion of states’ rights nullification, “States may resist federal law deemed to be uncondtitution[sic] which results in some Federal law being rendered, in practice, null and voir[sic] or unenforceable” Among the grassroots Tea Party groups in Wisconsin, the orientation of the Northwoods Patriots is more the rule than the exception.

The importance of support for the Tea Parties in this partisan race

Votes fell heavily along partisan lines: 94% of Republicans backed Walker, as did 86% of conservatives. Barrett received similarly strong support from Democrats, winning 91%, and liberals (86%). Once again, independent voters gave an edge to Walker, giving him 54% compared to 45% for Barrett. That was down slightly from 2010 when Walker received the votes of 56% of independents and Barrett 42%.

The Tea Party effort focused on strategically targeted rural and suburban parts of Wisconsin.  And it worked. Barrett convincingly won the vote in cities of more than 50,000 people, with a 62%-37% margin.  That vote only accounted for about 21% of the total, however. Walker won the suburbs, which accounted for 47% of the voters, 56%-44%.  The Governor also won small cities and rural areas, 60%-39%.  That accounted for the remaining 33% of the voters.  Thus the suburban and small-town vote trumped the city vote.

According to exit polls, Tea Party support was often a deciding factor.  The Tea Party got out more voters and won over more “neutral” voters than did unions and progressives.  Voters supporting the Tea Party made up 36% of the total, the largest grouping according to exit polls. Those who registered support for the Tea Party voted 93%-7% for Walker. Of the 27% of voters who claimed to be neutral on the Tea Party, they also voted for Walker, though in a smaller 53%-46% margin. Those who opposed the Tea Party made up 35% of the voters and voted for Barrett, 86-14%.

On the central question of the rights of public-sector unions, Wisconsin voters were somewhat at odds. On the one hand, exit polls showed that voters expressed a favorable view of public employee unions – 51%-45%. At the same time, voters approved both limiting collective bargaining and how Walker handled collective bargaining by a nearly inverse number of 52%-47%.

Recall Fatigue

Exit polls point to a critical, but generally overlooked, reason for Walker’s victory: “recall fatigue.” Remember that this was the second round of contentious recall elections in the state in just over a year.  Opinion in the state swung decidedly against using the recall process for partisan or policy aims. To many Wisconsin voters, recalls were meant to be different.

In fact, 60% of voters told pollsters that recall elections are appropriate “only for official misconduct.” Ten percent said they were “never” appropriate. Only 27% felt they were appropriate “for any reason.” Of those in the “only for official misconduct” category, 68% voted for Walker. Despite Walker’s general unpopularity, voters were reluctant to remove a sitting governor absent corruption or other criminal misconduct.

The timing of the recall election also hurt those arguing he had committed misconduct.  The misconduct claims centered on the way Gov. Walker rammed through anti-union legislation.  But those concerns had faded away for most Wisconsinites by the time he was eligible to be recalled.  Further, the FBI’s so-called John Doe investigation into activities during Walker’s time as a county executive had not yet resulted in any charges against the governor.

The Talking Points Memo tracker of Governor Walker’s favorability rating nicely captures the voter’s diminishing attention to Walker’s misdeeds. By Thanksgiving 2011 the favorability trend line had already turned in Walker’s favor.

The recall effort, and Barrett’s campaign, in particular, failed to conclusively make the case in the closing weeks. The refrain that Walker was running around being a “rock star of the far-right” was true, but it wasn’t enough to get people over the recall hurdle.

Moreover, the selection of Barrett as the Democratic opponent may have added to the sentiment that the recall was political sour grapes instead of an extraordinary circumstance. Barrett was Walker’s opponent in the 2010 race for governor. In the end, the 2012 recall margin of victory for Walker was almost identical to the margin he beat Barrett by in 2010.

The Recall Process Problem

Recall supporters also ran into a procedural problem with the recall system, that added an additional burden on the candidate ultimately selected to run against the governor.

In January 2012, as soon as Walker was eligible, recall supporters submitted one million signatures to trigger the recall election. Walker, however, had been running against a potential recall since the protests over his anti-union legislation erupted in February 2011. Walker became a Tea Party hero, and support rushed in from across the country.  In essence, Walker had a fifteen-month head start in campaigning and fundraising.

On the other side, Barrett had to go through a contentious primary battle that didn’t conclude until the May 8 election. The timing gave him less than a month to mount a general election campaign against Walker.

While Walker was a national star in conservative circles (and infamous in progressive circles), Barrett was never able to reach that level of name recognition or enthusiasm. When he wasn’t able to immediately close the gap in the polls, the Democratic National Committee and other national Democrats were reluctant to invest in the race, leaving labor and state Democrats to fight alone.

The Money

As has been noted often by others, Walker had a significant financial edge in this election.  He benefited from a campaign finance loophole that allowed him to raise unlimited cash until the recall process formally started. Big money Republican donated six figures or more directly to Walker’s campaign. Barrett started way behind and couldn’t catch up. Democrats were ultimately outspent by more than 7-to-1.

Conventional wisdom in electoral politics often holds that conservatives have the money, while progressives have the ground game (thanks to progressives and labor unions).  Presumably whichever side better utilizes their resources wins. Nothing is conventional, however, since the Tea Party emerged. In Wisconsin, the Tea Party had a ground game that matched or bettered the trade union-progressive effort.

Back at the Tea Party meeting in Silverdale, Washington, when the celebration of Walker’s victory in Wisconsin died down, the local group of Tea Party Patriots got back to business. Organizers from the Private Enterprise Project, an alliance of business interests and Tea Party groups, started outlining a plan to target state congressional districts exclusively on Initiative 1185, an effort to renew the requirement that any tax increase by the state legislature must be passed by a two-thirds super-majority. The group is pushing forward despite the fact that the original measure, Initiative 1053, was ruled unconstitutional by a King County Superior Court. The group handed out initiative petitions and voter registration cards for targeted districts, in the hopes of turning Washington into Wisconsin.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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