In past years, the annual Washington fundraiser for Wisconsin Republicans had largely gone unnoticed as just another reception on the K Street money circuit.
But the event slated for this evening at the BGR Group lobbying and public relations firm has suddenly been thrust into the national spotlight as ideological groups and political parties seek the advantage in the tempest over labor rights in Wisconsin.
Hoping to nationalize the controversy, liberal groups are mobilizing donors and activists in the effort to recall GOP state Senators who pushed through Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curb bargaining rights of state employee unions.
Meanwhile, conservatives are bracing to defend the threatened Republican Senators and recall Democratic state Senators who fled the state to thwart Walker's efforts.
Bob Wood, BGR president for government affairs, said he has been hosting the fundraiser for the past seven years to support Republican candidates in Wisconsin.
But this year, he said, the event has been magnified by the labor brawl.
"Timing is everything," said Wood, previously a top aide to former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R). Although the event was not planned to raise money for the recall elections, Wood said, "with Democrats' groups like MoveOn, Public Citizen and the International Socialist Organization committing upwards of $2 million in each of these potential Senate recalls, every dollar can help."
Wood said the donors at the event would be the traditional K Street crowd, including "individuals and PACs that have a presence in Wisconsin and are active in policy debates."
But some of the featured guests, including Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) and his brother, state Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R), have drawn notice from an array of liberal groups such as Public Citizen that said they will be protesting outside BGR's downtown office. The groups are touting the large Madison protests and asking for a show of force, with DC for Obama asking for 100,000 protesters.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also has seized on the event as an opportunity to bolster its coffers. The party committee recently sent out a fundraising appeal under the name of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), citing BGR's event.
For Democrats, victories in the recall elections could have significant psychological and political help in softening the blow they took last year in the midterm elections. The hit was particularly hard in Wisconsin, where Sen. Russ Feingold (D) lost and Republicans took control of the governorship and the Legislature. Feingold is considered a potential candidate to challenge Walker should he face his own recall election. To be recalled, an officeholder must have one year of tenure, so Walker could face an effort in January. Feingold's new political action committee has purchased Google ads targeted to the labor fight.
National political observers will also be watching the state Senate races as a measure of public sentiment leading into the presidential elections.
"It would be seen as a harbinger of things to come in 2012," said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin.