WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s abrupt flameout in the Republican presidential primary race came despite his success in raising massive contributions for a pair of unlimited-money political organizations supporting his bid. Donors to those groups may have lost a candidate, but many of them didn't waste their contributions.
Walker returns to a state where he has won three elections (two general elections and a recall election) and wielded power on behalf of the region’s business community. His administration has approved tax credits, grants, low-cost loans and straight-up handouts of taxpayer money to businesses and their owners, while loosening environmental and labor regulations. A number of donors to Walker’s presidential super PAC and 527 group directly benefited from these policies and may continue to seek action from the governor’s office.
One obvious case came in August, just one month after Walker launched his presidential bid, when the governor signed legislation to use $250 million in state and local funds to pay for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team. Jon Hammes, an owner of the Bucks, contributed $150,000 to Walker’s Unintimidated PAC, a super PAC, through a company he controls called HF Securities. Ted Kellner, a minority owner in the Bucks, gave $50,000 to Walker’s super PAC. The Bucks have spent more money this year on lobbying the Wisconsin government than any other company, union or group.
Hammes, who was the national finance co-chair for Walker’s campaign, also benefited from awards distributed by the governor’s jobs-creation agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., or WEDC. Hammes' investment in the Edgewater Hotel received $56 million in low-cost loans from WEDC.
Other Walker super PAC donors also were awarded money through WEDC, which Walker led until 2014, when he was removed following numerous embarrassing audits. WEDC gave $500,000 to Jay Jensen’s Clasen Quality Coatings. Jensen donated $100,000 to Unintimidated PAC. RDC National, a real estate company based in Madison, gave $10,000, while Janesville-based SSI Technologies gave $50,000. Both companies received WEDC awards.
WEDC has repeatedly stated that its awards are independent and given without consideration to politics or political donations.
Since dropping out of the race on Monday, Walker has been criticized for relying too heavily on a financial strategy that favored unlimited money groups and not direct contributions to his campaign. The strategy, employed by other Republican presidential candidates, is made possible by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and a subsequent lower court ruling that allows corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums on elections, so long as the spending is independent from candidates. That independence has been a mirage, as the Federal Election Commission has failed to enforce existing rules.
Wisconsin donors seeking money from the state for their own business interests and the interests of ideological organizations they support does not end with WEDC.
In 2013, Wisconsin megadonor Terry Kohler lobbied the state legislature to create a $500,000 heritage grant that was phrased in such a way that it could only go to one organization -- the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. The group played a role in the network of dark money nonprofits -- many connected to Kohler -- involved in the gubernatorial and legislative recall elections in 2011 and 2012.
Walker’s administration denied knowledge of the creation of the earmarked grant to the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. The grant was rescinded after it was revealed the group misrepresented itself in federal tax filings.
Kohler, whose father and grandfather both served as Wisconsin governors, once booked Walker to attend an event honoring the past Kohlers. At the time, Kohler joked to the Green Bay Press Gazette, "Would I have been able to get Scott to do that if I hadn't been contributing? Now if you want to call that access, go ahead.” Kohler donated $100,000 to Walker’s super PAC in June.
Milk Source LLC, an industrial dairy supplier based in Wisconsin, contributed $25,000 to Walker’s super PAC. The company was part of a controversial decision by Walker’s Department of Natural Resources to approve high-capacity wells to provide water for the company’s cows. The permits were challenged by environmental groups in court. A judge allowed the permits, but criticized the permitting process as “scientifically unsupported.”
Another of Walker’s unlimited-money donors with business before the state’s Department of Natural Resources was Texas-based Hi-Crush Properties, which operates frac sand mines in Wisconsin. Robert Rasmus, a Hi-Crush co-founder, donated $100,000 to Walker’s Our American Revival, a 527 group Walker used to raise unlimited money before getting into the presidential race. In 2014, Hi-Crush paid a $52,000 fine for violating environmental regulations at its frac sand site in Eau Claire.
Walker’s Department of Natural Resources also is involved in the controversial sale of public lakefront property to a top donor. Elizabeth Uihlein, purchaser of 1.75 acres from the state, and her husband Richard Uihlein, the owner of shipping company Uline, contributed $2.5 million to Unintimidated PAC and $200,000 to Our American Revival. The sale of the property has been criticized by environmental groups and public park proponents.
Then there is what Walker is best known for: ending collective bargaining rights for public employee labor unions and passing “right-to-work” legislation to gut private sector unions. Just before he began his attack on public sector unions -- a move that led to the recall election -- Walker spoke with one of his top benefactors, Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks.
Hendricks asked whether Walker could kill all unions and make Wisconsin a “completely red state.” Walker explained that he would start with public employee unions as part of a strategy that eventually would give supporters what they wanted.
Hendricks was the single-largest donor to Walker’s presidential super PAC with a $5 million donation -- 25 percent of the group’s total through June 30. When asked about her support for Walker’s presidential campaign by Bloomberg, Hendricks explained, “If he goes out here and he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be the person that I will support."
Walker will now keep doing what he’s been doing back in Madison until 2018, when he will be able to run for a third term as governor.
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