The Tea Party Impact in Wisconsin
By Devin Burghart,
Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights
Progressive America Rising
(The Left-Progressive Wing of the Coalition that elected
Obama, formerly 'Progressives for Obama,' now pushing
June 14, 2012
June 13, 2012 - 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 half
way 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
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
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 consider 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
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 WalkerforJobs.com 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 Kleefish,
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 "a paid sponsor of the Patriot Action
The 1776 Tea Party (aka TeaParty.org) 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
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 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 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
union, 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
In fact, 60% of voters told pollsters that recall elections
are appropriate "only for official misconduct." Ten per cent
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
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 Walkers 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-
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.
All material c copyright Institute for Research & Education
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