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Priebus' Republican National Committee: A Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Koch's Americans for Prosperity?

The new RNC chair Reince Priebus, implicated in Americans for Prosperity's voter-caging scandal, carried a lot of water for the Koch-led group in Wisconsin. Now he's rewarded.
 
 
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To the casual political observer, Reince Priebus, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, seemed to come out of nowhere. But to Wisconsin progressives, Priebus is known as the state Republican Party operative who allegedly tried to suppress the votes of minorities and students in both the recent midterm congressional elections and the 2008 presidential election -- in apparent coordination with David Koch's Americans For Prosperity.

Inside the world of Tea Party Inc. -- the array of well-funded, Washington-insider, Tea Party-affiliated astroturf groups such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks -- Priebus is known as a team player, the guy who, as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, would help knock the scruffiest of Tea Party activists out of Republican primaries in favor of presumably more electable Tea Party-branded figures, such as Ron Johnson, the victorious U.S. Senate candidate who was endorsed by FreedomWorks in his primary.

On the eve of the election for RNC chair, Mark Block, who just stepped down from his post as state director for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, lauded Priebus in a Daily Caller op-ed for having supplied AFP with bus transportation and GOP staff support "for the movement of an enormous number of Tea Party activists from the outskirts of Madison to the rally site on the steps of the State Capitol, where over 8,000 people gathered" for a 2009 AFP rally. But the collegiality of the two involves logistical planning of another kind. Priebus was allegedly involved in an alleged voter suppression scheme launched by a Wisconsin Tea Party group, GrandSons of Liberty, with the assistance of Americans for Prosperity.

As reported in November by Sarah Posner for the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute (and reprinted by AlterNet), Americans for Prosperity was implicated, together with the Republican Party of Wisconsin, in a voter-caging scheme designed to challenge the votes of university students in Milwaukee, and voters in a largely African American assembly district in the city. With the election of Priebus last week to the helm of the national GOP, AlterNet decided to take a second look at the scheme, and found Priebus' own chief counsel deeply involved, providing lists to Tea Party activists of voters targeted for purging from the rolls.

Priebus and Americans for Prosperity: 'We're In'

"Voter caging" is a term used for a process designed to challenge the legitimacy of a voter's registration by sending out mail marked "do not forward" -- in this case, postcards -- to the addresses of targeted registered voters, and challenging the registrations of those at addresses from which the mail is returned as "undeliverable." The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice describes it this way: "Voter caging…is notoriously unreliable. If it is treated as the sole basis for determining that a voter is ineligible or does not live at the address at which he or she registered, it can lead to the unwarranted purge or challenge of eligible voters."

At a June 2010 meeting of Tea Party activists eager to join in the right's unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, Tim Dake, leader of the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, outlined the Tea Party/GOP/AFP caging plan, saying, "So, what we're hoping is that the various groups in the coalition, plus Americans for Prosperity and Mark Block, who has been in on this, and the Republican Party -- and this is coming all the way from the top: Reince Priebus has said, 'We're in.'"

At the meeting, Dake notes the importance of the GOP's involvement, since it has access to the "Voter Vault" -- the database of registered voters. An audiotape of the meeting was obtained by the progressive group One Wisconsin Now.

"They can go in there and look for lapsed voters," Dake explained to the group.

In the scheme to which Priebus and Mark Block, then Americans for Prosperity's state director, were apparently parties, college students at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee and Marquette University were the prime targets, as were residents of a Milwaukee African American neighborhood.

Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, told me last October that the plan appeared to involve sending out the caging postcards in the summertime to voters in precincts where most residences were dorms, noting that most students are on vacation in the summer. (And, of course, many return to different dorms the following term.) Presumably, any cards returned to the Tea Party group marked "undeliverable" would be used as evidence to challenge that person's vote in the November midterm elections.

Photographing Homes of Targeted Voters

In a July memo outlining the plan, Dake said that Americans for Prosperity was preparing the initial mailing of 500 postcards to voters in Wisconsin's 16th assembly district -- which has a large African American population -- and that more would be mailed as funding allowed. AFP's Mark Block initially denied having any part in the scheme, but when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained a statement from Dake saying Block had been involved in more than one meeting on the plan, Block admitted that AFP had sent out the initial 500-piece mailing. However, Block said, since only 10 cards were returned as undeliverable, the plan was abandoned.

Priebus' office denied any involvement in the actual sending of letters. From the Journal Sentinel:

State Republican Party executive director Mark Jefferson said Priebus had had only general discussions with Dake about the issue of voter fraud and that the GOP had never actually went ahead with any of the plans Dake had outlined in the recording.

"We had discussions with everyone about this, but as far as sending out letters like this, I haven't had any discussions like that," Jefferson said.

However, a document uncovered this fall by One Wisconsin Now casts doubt both on that assertion and on Block's claim that the voter-caging plan was abandoned before the midterm elections. At the very least, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, under Priebus' leadership, monitored the addresses of registered voters via surveillance conducted by Tea Party activists -- who were provided with lists of "questionable addresses" by the Wisconsin GOP.

 On September 16, Dake forwarded to a group of Tea Party activists an e-mail (obtained by One Wisconsin Now) from Jonathan Waclawski, then the finance director and chief counsel of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with the subject line: COALITION NEWS: FOR LEADERSHIP: Voter Fraud Project. In the e-mail -- originally sent to Dake and Mark Musselman, also of the GrandSons of Liberty -- Waclawski explains that the party already has good "coverage" in 17 counties, but could "use help" in others, notably in Milwaukee County, which he contends "has over 16,000 questionable addresses."

In his introduction to the Republican Party e-mail, Dake verifies that Waclawski's e-mail is part of the same project discussed at the June meeting where One Wisconsin Now obtained the damning audio, writing: "Here are the forms for the voter fraud project that was debuted at the Marshfield meeting in June…The idea is to verify the suspect voter registrations per the supporting documentation."

Attached to the e-mail were four documents, including a non-disclosure agreement signed by Waclawski for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which barred participants in the project (presumably the Tea Party activists conducting the voter "fraud" project) from disclosing that information to anyone but the Republican Party. There is also one offering instructions for a step-by-step address verification process that includes taking photos of buildings listed on the voter rolls bearing "questionable addresses" and instructions for forwarding the information to Waclawski. In a press release, One Wisconsin Now described that as an instruction to "photograph the homes of people targeted for voter suppression activities."

"One Wisconsin Now made a formal request for investigation with the U.S. Attorney's Office, as well as the Wisconsin Attorney General's Election Integrity Task Force and the Government Accountability Board," reads a statement issued by the group.

The group also cites Priebus' involvement in voter-caging schemes executed in previous elections in Milwaukee precincts. "In 2002, the state Elections Board enacted new guidelines for poll-watchers in response to a Priebus-led racially charged voter intimidation scheme in Milwaukee," Scot Ross said in a statement. "In 2008, Priebus' Republican Party of Wisconsin sent out an email recruiting volunteers for alleged 'inner city' voter intimidation in Milwaukee."

As of press time, the Republican National Committee had not returned AlterNet's call for comment. This story will be updated if we receive a response from the RNC.

Not Everyone's Cup of Tea

While Americans for Prosperity and the GrandSons of Liberty may love them some Reince Preibus, the same can't be said for some of those Wisconsin Tea Party leaders not supported by the big money of the Koch brothers. Some saw an inside game at work in Priebus' endorsements of Senate candidate Ron Johnson and gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker in their primaries, races in which they were competing against other Tea Party candidates. Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel reports that eight Wisconsin Tea Party leaders, including Ken Van Doren of the Campaign for Liberty, and Dan Horvatin of the Rock River Patriots, are miffed at what looked to them like the backroom dealings of the power class in the GOP primaries.

And Michael Steele humbly compared himself to Julius Caesar, casting Priebus, whom Steele had elevated to the RNC as general counsel, in the Brutus role for having challenged and defeated Steele in this year's race for national party chairman. "I know exactly how Caesar felt," Steele told Tim Mak of Frum Forum, claiming that Priebus had apparently been plotting his challenge to his mentor for at least six months before announcing he was getting into the race. "We put a lot of resources in Wisconsin over the last two years…." Steele told Mak. "[T]hat's what you do for [the] team."

It seems that nobody told the astroturf crew of the ground-level disgruntlement with Priebus. Russ Walker of FreedomWorks, which was founded with Koch's money,  told WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate: "In some states, you have a disconnect between the grassroots and the party. You just don't see that in places like Wisconsin. And you don't see it with a guy like Reince."

Who Owns the GOP Now? Who Owns the Tea Party?

At the swearing-in of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, David Koch, chairman of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, made a rare public appearance. You could hardly blame him for wanting to witness the fruits of a victory that his billions and his operatives had worked hard to obtain by any means necessary.

 But there's another casualty besides the Democratic Party reflected in the ascendancy of Reince Priebus to the helm of the GOP. The true grassroots of the Tea Party movement has gotten a kick in the teeth, while Koch's astroturfing operation triumphed, subsuming the Tea Party under its own brand -- and the GOP, as well.

Talking to Politico, Jake Speed of La Crosse Liberty Coalition said, "A lot of people like to say that the Republican Party kind of co-opted the Tea Parties, but I think it was the other way around."

Well, that depends on whose Tea Parties you're talking about. If you're talking about David Koch's Tea Parties -- the groups that work with Americans for Prosperity -- then you'd be right. Game over.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
 
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