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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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Billionaires warn Scott Walker over John Doe settlement
Big donors worry the governor will betray them

No sooner had Mary Burke pulled even with Scott Walker in the polls than the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity dumped another $900,000 into a major TV ad buy in Wisconsin. The point of the new ads is to tell Wisconsinites that we are doing much better than we think we are.

"It's Working!" the ads cheerily declare. They feature ordinary-looking people expressing their gratitude to Scott Walker for... what, exactly?

Leading us to the bottom of the heap among states in our region for job creation?

Handing out $570 million, or 60% of the funds (PDF) distributed by Walker's Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), to donors who gave his campaign $1 million directly (and another $1 million indirectly, through the Republican Governors Association)?

The fiasco at WEDC has been amply documented, from the scandal over staff spending our tax dollars on Badgers tickets and iTunes gift cards, to the lack of accountability for businesses who received public money but didn't track whether they created any jobs, to the overall failure of Walker's administration to keep pace with the national recovery, let alone fulfill his promise to create 250,000 new jobs.

These facts, not a surge by Mary Burke, account for the polls that show Burke and Walker in a dead heat at 47% each.

That's bad news for Walker because, as Burke pointed out at a recent campaign event, the public is already pretty darn familiar with the governor. A sudden surge in his poll numbers is unlikely.

And the news lately has not been kind to Walker. The last thing he needs, besides more news about cronyism and economic stagnation, is another round of dirty jokes and racist rants in emails from his staffers or, worse, evidence of illegal campaign coordination, which could emerge from the ongoing John Doe investigation.

That's why, we learned last week, Walker's attorney has been negotiating a settlement deal in the Doe. Making sure the governor is not on the hook for illegal campaign activity has got to be a top priority as he moves into the fall election season.

But Walker's calculation of what is best for Walker put him at cross-purposes with the big donors who buy the ads to help him get elected. And that's where things got really interesting.

The Wall Street Journal published an amazing editorial last week, excoriating Walker for daring to consider a settlement with the prosecutors investigating illegal coordination between his campaign and dark money groups. The Journal editorial sent a loud message to Walker on behalf of a national network of big-time right-wing donors, telling our governor: Don't forget who you're working for.

Walker had better not throw his big-money supporters under the bus, the Journal warned. The money guys are used to getting their way. And they don't put up with rebelliousness from their candidates.

Taking chutzpah to a new level, the head of Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board last Thursday, saying the public agency should not be permitted to spend public funds investigating whether the millions of dollars Club for Growth and other dark money groups poured into Walker's campaign were illegal.

The billionaire position got a boost from Judge Rudolph Randa, who, before he was overruled by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, had ordered the John Doe prosecutors to destroy evidence they collected against the dark money groups and their coordination with Walker.

Randa, a member of the right-wing Federalist Society, has the distinction of being the only federal judge in Wisconsin to attend Koch brothers-funded judicial junkets that push conservative ideology at swanky resorts on all-expense-paid vacations. Randa is a frequent flyer to these affairs, according to groundbreaking reporting by my colleague Brendan Fischer from the Center for Media and Democracy, attending in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

This represents a conflict -- or at least the unseemly appearance of a conflict -- even according to fellow conservatives like former Waukesha District Attorney Paul Bucher. But it may help account for Randa's over-the-top language in his court decision, in which hecompared Wisconsin campaign finance investigations to "the guillotine and the gulag."

Free speech is in danger, according to the Wall Street Journal editorial board and its allies, if billionaires are prevented from spending uncapped amounts in our elections. (The Wall Street Journal editorial board, by the way, has received more than $250,000 in "journalism awards" from the Bradley Foundation -- our own Wisconsin-based conservative think tank).

Like Walker's jobs record, it's a tough position to sell to the general public. But they are willing to go in big for a marketing campaign that, if it doesn't push Walker above 47%, might at least succeed in muddying the waters enough to keep regular citizens from seeing where their interests lie and pulling together to defend them.

Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.

[Editor's note: This opinion column incorrectly stated that the Koch brothers fund the Bradley Foundation.]

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