By Don Walker, Tom Kertscher and Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a new opponent this year — a super PAC heavily funded by liberal billionaire George Soros.
In anticipation of Walker’s re-election campaign this fall and possible presidential bid in 2016, American Bridge 21st Century is already hard at work in Wisconsin.
The group unveiled on Wednesday a new website called JohnDoeWalker.com, devoted to exposing information about Walker. The site was launched the same day emails were released from a secret John Doe investigation into links between Walker’s staff and his political campaign.
American Bridge received $1 million from the Soros Fund Management firm during the 2012 election cycle and funding from individual donors and labor unions. Organizers say they have committed about two dozen of their Washington, D.C.-based staff to poring over the 27,000 pages of emails.
Soros is a backer of Hillary Rodham Clinton, widely viewed as the Democratic front-runner in the 2016 presidential race.
Founded in November 2010 by author and liberal activist David Brock, the group grew out of a left-wing media watchdog group, Media Matters for America.
American Bridge does opposition research on Republican office holders and candidates for president, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and for governor.
American Bridge has worked in Wisconsin before.
In the 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, American Bridge provided documents for an Associated Press story showing that GOP candidate and former Gov. Tommy Thompson had earned more than $8.5 million in compensation since 2005 from companies that included a prominent Washington lobbying firm, a medical device manufacturer and a globally recognized consulting firm. Thompson lost to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
American Bridge turned its sights to Walker this past November, using a project it launched called Correct the Record.
Correct the Record highlighted what it called Walker’s apparent failure to fulfill a campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs before his term as governor ends next January.
The offshoot group, led by Clinton’s 2008 campaign strategist Burns Strider, according to Politico, issued that news release less than a week after Walker criticized Clinton as a “product of Washington” during a meeting of conservatives in New York.
American Bridge spokeswoman Gwen Rocco said Thursday that JohnDoeWalker.com hasn’t revealed anything about the emails that hasn’t already been reported by other media, but that the site is the only one created exclusively for coverage of the emails.
Walker is running up against an inescapable fact of political life — the higher your aspirations, the bigger target you become for your foes.
As expected, Democrats from around the country leapt on the documents, dissecting the emails and trying to link the story to other embattled national Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who faces criticism over the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in a political dispute, and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who faces federal charges of accepting gifts.
Larry Sabato, a prominent political analyst at the University of Virginia who had placed Walker atop his early list of Republican presidential hopefuls, said he didn’t think the emails and documents hurt Walker.
“I would put a big red asterisk to anything I say,” Sabato said, noting the huge number of documents could be hiding something damaging. “It could be Bridgegate. But I don’t think it’s like Bridgegate. I just don’t think it is nearly as serious.”
Walker, Sabato said, is No. 1 on his list of GOP presidential aspirants largely because all the other candidates to date are weakened or damaged. If Jeb Bush or Ohio Gov. John Kasich jump in, they would go to the head of the class.
“What I think is critical for Scott Walker and his presidential ambitions, assuming he has some, is that he gets re-elected handily,” Sabato said. “That’s far more important than this.”
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said it was too early to say what political impact the emails might have. But she said that for now her respected political handicapping outfit wasn’t changing its current rating on the Wisconsin’s governor’s race of “Lean Republican.”
“From what I have read, I don’t see any reason to move the rating,” she said.
The Walker campaign could not be reached for comment, and Walker’s staff said the governor would not be available to take questions the day after the documents were released.
That didn’t stop the Democrats, nationally and in Wisconsin, from keeping the pressure on.
“While Republican governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are facing ethical problems, we’ve now seen Scott Walker is no exception,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Added Mike Tate, chair of the state Democratic Party: “This reinforces what we’ve already known, which is much like Chris Christie, Scott Walker likes to stand in the middle of people committing criminal activity all around him and saying, ‘I had no idea what was going on.’ ”
So far, Mary Burke, Democratic candidate for governor, isn’t talking about the fallout from the newly released documents from the secret John Doe investigation. Prosecutors spent nearly three years probing political activity by Walker’s staff during his time as Milwaukee County executive.
Burke’s spokesman, Joe Zepecki, said Burke had no plans to issue a statement, though he opened the door a bit. He said reporters could bring up the topic at future news conferences.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, condemned campaigning on public time but said the crime committed by former Walker staffer Kelly Rindfleisch had resulted in her conviction and punishment. He said the new emails didn’t prove any other violations.
What the unsealed documents showed, Vos said, was “high school” behavior by some involved, but no revelations that would rock a governor.
“It’s just more interesting and gossipy,” Vos said. “Perhaps people may be embarrassed by this but it’s not (additional) crimes.”
For now, the massive amounts of new information will put the governor off his game, according to James Simmons, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh political science professor who has run political campaigns.
“I don’t know if the emails have been thoroughly vetted and completely reviewed,” Simmons said. “There probably is going to be at least a few embarrassing citations coming from this.”
But Simmons said he had doubts the documents would be as damaging as what happened to Christie in New Jersey.
“A scandal over blocking a bridge is (easier) to understand than campaigning on government time,” Simmons said. “The public is more likely to take seriously the former than the latter. Generally the public gives campaign finance reform and campaign activities a fairly low priority in their concerns.”
Sabato, ever the veteran political watcher, said matter-of-factly that “there’s something on everybody.”
“Boy, if this is the most serious thing that happens, he will be very lucky,” he said.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr