Did the Koch Machine Put Romney Over the Top in Wisconsin?
In a closer race than the polls predicted, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the Wisconsin Republican presidential primary by a mere 4-point margin over Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Four was apparently Romney's lucky number in Wisconsin; he outspent Santorum on television ads by a margin of 4-to-1 during the Wisconsin, all for a weak finish. And of Romney's top Wisconsin endorsers, four are solid allies of the state's muscular Koch machine, a political apparatus comprising a particularly aggressive state chapter of the Koch-founded Americans For Prosperity, as well as a handful of think tanks and associations.
But a win is a win, and it now seems impossible for Santorum, who is vowing to stay in the race for the GOP presidential nomination until Romney racks up the required 1,144 delegates, to actually win the requisite number of delegates himself.
Key Endorsements from the Koch Syndicate
To celebrate, Romney delivered a speech that seemed tailored to the agenda crafted by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire principals of Koch Industries, decrying government regulation, so-called entitlements (code for Social Security) and labor unions. At the Grain Exchange in Milwaukee, Romney was introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has received over $65,000 in campaign contributions from Koch Industries PACs and its employees over the course of his career, according to OpenSecrets. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the Ryan endorsement a "key" for Romney. Then the Koch-backed U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson announced his endorsement of Romney on Sunday. Just elected in 2010 with help from Americans for Prosperity, Johnson has received more than $24,000 in campaign donations from Koch Industries PACs and employees.
"Romney's performance was all the more notable because of how poor his standing was just five or six weeks ago, according to Wisconsin polls taken that month," writes the Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert. "He trailed Santorum by double digits and had mediocre popularity ratings among GOP voters."
After announcing his backing of Romney on Friday, Ryan, on the heels of delivering a Medicare-gutting Republican budget plan last week, spent five days on the campaign trail with Romney. It seems unlikely that he would have done so without the nod of his political backers within the Koch syndicate.
The co-chairs of Romney's Wisconsin campaign, state Sen. Alberta Darling and former state Sen. Ted Kanavas both earned a 100-percent approval rating from Americans for Prosperity in the 2005-2006 cycle, which appears to be the last year in which the group issued a score card on Wisconsin legislators. Darling barely survived a recall election last summer after voting for the anti-union law rammed through the state legislature by another Koch-sponsored politician, Gov. Scott Walker, who now faces a recall election himself. (To be fair, one of Santorum's Wisconsin backers, former Assembly Speaker John Gard, also earned a 100-percent AFP rating.)
While the impact of endorsements is a point of argument among pundits and political scientists, 60 percent of voters in the Wisconsin primary said that Romney's endorsements were a factor in determining their vote, according to exit polls.
Where's Scott Walker?
One notable Koch acolyte who did not endorse Romney -- or any of the G.O.P. presidential contenders -- was Gov. Scott Walker, who's a little busy these days, fending off a recall effort that will come to a head in a special election on June 5. But that doesn't mean his presence wasn't felt. Wisconsin Republicans apparently got the message conveyed by the Ryan and Johnson endorsements: among the 79 percent of Wisconsin Republican primary voters who approve of Walker, Romney won handily, according to exit polls.
And Romney seemed to hear the same message. Ever since he muscled through the legislature with an AFP-supported anti-union bill, Walker has been under fire. First there was the 18-day occupation of the state capitol building by opponents of the law, and the unveiling of Walker as a Koch toady, thanks to his punking by blogger Ian Murphy, who conned Walker into thinking he was talking to David Koch on the phone.Then there were the indictments of Walker staff members and associates on charges ranging from embezzlement to sex with a minor. And then, last week, a federal judge struck down portions of Walker's anti-union law. "The court ruled that the state cannot prevent public sector unions from automatically deducting dues from workers' paychecks and cannot require them to be rectified annually," the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel explained.
In his victory speech, Romney mentioned neither Walker nor his unpopular law by name. But he got a big round of applause for these lines:
"Now, workers should have the right to join unions. But unions should not be forced upon workers. And unions should not have the power to take money our of their members' paychecks to buy the support of politicians that are favored by the union bosses."
It's a pitch that could have been made by Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips himself. In January 2011, just before joining David Koch at the swearing in of the freshman class of the House of Representatives -- a class heavily populated with Koch-backed candidates -- I attended a breakfast gathering of conservatives at which Phillips delivered remarks. As I reported last June:
Last January, in a speech to activists at the Leadership Institute, a right-wing training center located in Arlington, Virginia, Phillips explained that the reason fiscal conservatives failed to win the day on their issues during the tenure of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was that right-wingers did not "have an army on the ground" while "the left did."
"They had the public employee unions," Phillips said, "which have only gotten stronger, have only gotten better-funded, have only gotten better organized in the period of time between the 1990s and today."
Less than six weeks later, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose career has been propelled by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), introduced the anti-labor budget bill that incited 18 days of mass protests in the state capitol.
With his anti-union message, Romney implicitly conveyed his support for Walker, whom Wisconsin Republicans love almost as much as the general population appears not to, while saving himself from embarrassment should Walker lose in the recall. And by withholding his endorsement, Walker potentially did Romney a favor in the event of such a catastrophe.
Despite all attempts to remain hidden, though, Walker was reportedly seen by Daily Kos blogger ForestLake at the federal courthouse in Milwaukee, in something less than a public appearance.
More Koch Strokes From Romney
In Milwaukee last night, after being introduced by Koch darling Paul Ryan, Romney delivered a speech that read as if it had been crafted in the Americans For Prosperity communications shop. The speech took aim, as one might expect, at President Barack Obama, but also hit all the key points of the Koch agenda: deregulation, a scale-back of social programs, and a paean to "limited government."
Earlier in the day, Obama addressed a meeting of news executives, offering a scathing review of the federal budget cooked up by Ryan, who heads the House Budget Committee, which calls for a virtual end to Medicare and offers a fast-track plan for cuts to Social Security. From the AP:
"It is thinly veiled social Darwinism," Obama said to the annual meeting of The Associated Press. "It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it ... It is a prescription for decline."
As demonstrated in Robert Greenwald's new film, Koch Brothers Exposed, Americans For Prosperity, along with other Koch-funded entities, has long advocated roll-backs to both programs -- always defined by the right as "entitlements" -- so it's safe to assume that AFP's billionaire founders appreciated these remarks from Romney last night:
"In Barack Obama's government-centered society, government spending always increases because, well, why not? There's always someone who's entitled to something more and who's willing to vote for anyone who will give them something more."
"[R]egulators have to see their job not just as cracking down on the bad guys but also as protecting economic freedom and promoting enterprise and fostering job creation."
In fact, he characterized the whole Obama agenda as being anti-business (tell that to the auto-makers and the bailed-out banks), and the president as being "out of touch." (Now, how many Cadillacs was that again, Mrs. Romney?)
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter:www.twitter.com/addiestan