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Election 2018 Governor Wisconsin

Democratic Challenger Tony Evers, left, said Republican Gov. Scott Walker was helping a major donor by approving state intervention into a California lawsuit.

Top Republican office-holders in Wisconsin inserted the state in a California lawsuit to help the sister organization of a Koch brothers group that spends millions of dollars to elect GOP candidates here.

The state Democratic Party criticized the court action as a partisan move to aid a major GOP donor, while Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel said through a spokeswoman that it safeguarded Wisconsin citizens from retribution for political activity.

Wisconsin filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation in a lawsuit to keep its donor list out of the hands of California regulators.

The lawsuit is “an important First Amendment case to protect the First Amendment rights of Wisconsin residents ... which were put at risk by California’s reckless, unconstitutional actions,” said Schimel spokeswoman Rebecca Ballweg.

Walker didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman for his Democratic opponent in Tuesday’s election said the intervention in the court case was intended to help the governor’s campaign donors.

“It’s no surprise that a typical politician like Scott Walker has the backs of special interest groups like the Koch brothers — they’ve had his back to the tune of millions of dollars,” said Sam Lau, a spokesman for state Superintendent Tony Evers, who is running against Walker.

“Tony believes in common-sense campaign finance reform to get dark money out of politics and return power to where it belongs, with the people of Wisconsin,” Lau said.

In contrast to Walker, Schimel hasn’t benefited from Americans for Prosperity expenditures, but a Koch network political action committee has donated $20,000 to his campaign since 2014.

A spokeswoman for Schimel’s Democratic Party challenger, Josh Kaul, deferred comment to a party spokeswoman, who accused the attorney general of acting for political gain.

Koch brothers groups

With Walker’s approval, Schimel last year joined six other states in filing a brief supporting the Americans for Prosperity Foundation lawsuit.

The foundation is part of the conservative network of Kansas billionaires Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity is another Koch organization. It raises money for political advertising, while the foundation works on efforts like grassroots organizing. Both are nonprofits, but they fall into different categories under U.S. tax law.

In the California case, the foundation claimed that disclosure of donor names would rob some of their rights to contribute because they would fear retribution from the government or the public. The state countered that it holds donor lists in confidence but needs the information to ensure that groups comply with tax laws.

In September, a panel of three U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges dismissed the lawsuit, saying the Koch foundation hadn’t brought strong evidence that donors would be harmed. The judges also noted that California was finalizing a regulation to formalize its practice of withholding donor lists from the public.

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Brad Schimel and Josh Kaul debate

Democratic Party officials said Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel (left) was intervening in out-of-state lawsuits for partisan gain. Schimel is being challenged by Josh Kaul, a Democrat, in the Nov. 6 election.

Last month, Schimel and attorneys general from nine other states requested a rehearing before the full appeals court.

Protecting rights

Only three states require donor reporting. Wisconsin isn’t one of them. However, the federal government does require it on federal tax forms.

Schimel’s spokeswoman said eliminating California’s requirement would protect Wisconsin residents who donate to national nonprofits like Americans for Prosperity or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Matt Rothschild, who directs the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending, said he didn’t buy the argument that the California case was aimed at protecting everyone’s rights.

“Since the beginning of 2010 right up to today, Americans for Prosperity has spent at least $11,618,000 in Wisconsin to elect Republican candidates,” Rothschild said. “So Brad Schimel and Scott Walker went to bat not for the citizens of Wisconsin but for the Republicans’ patron.”

States go to court

For decades, states have banded together and gone to court. In the 1990s several cases challenged businesses. States with Democratic and Republican elected officials together won a huge settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998.

After that, fewer and fewer court actions were joined by attorneys general from both parties, said Paul Nolette, a Marquette University professor who has studied the trend.

In recent years heavy influxes of campaign money have spurred polarization, Nolette said.

Intervention by Schimel and other Republicans in the California case — and a federal court brief Schimel joined to defend Exxon Mobil from a climate change probe — appear to mark a new level of partisan litigation, with attorneys general from one party for the first time trying to limit the authority of other attorneys general, Nolette said.

Of the 82 multi-state friend-of-the-court briefs Schimel has joined, over 80 percent were joined exclusively or almost exclusively by other GOP attorneys general, Nolette said. Only six of the 26 GOP state attorneys general had higher rates of partisanship, he said.

Millions for GOP candidates

Democrats have knocked Walker and Schimel for going to court to oppose Obamacare and federal rules restricting pollution and greenhouse gases. State Democratic Party communications director Courtney Beyer said the California case was more evidence Schimel wasn’t putting the state’s need first.

“I didn’t think it was possible for him to be more of a special-interest puppet, but Brad Schimel continues to surprise me every time he sells out Wisconsin families for his own political gain,” Beyer said.

The president of the conservative Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, Rick Esenberg, said he found nothing unexpected in the cases where Schimel and Walker have intervened.

“It’s not surprising to me that a conservative (attorney general) would support donor privacy,” Esenberg said. “I suppose you could argue that this is ‘because’ AFP also supports donor privacy, and groups that are affiliated with AFP have supported Walker.”

“But you can make that argument anytime an (attorney general) takes a position that is consistent with those who support his or her candidacy,” Esenberg said.

Walker’s campaign is being bolstered by $3.1 million in advertising announced in August and September by Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin. In all, the group is spending $5.8 million supporting Walker and GOP legislative candidates.

AFP Wisconsin isn’t spending money to help Schimel. But since 2014, Schimel’s campaign has received $20,000 from a Koch political action committee.

AFP and another Koch-funded group are spending more than $6 million to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, who is running against Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.