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.
Eight Republican and six Democratic state Senators are the targets of recall efforts. The recall petitions that must be collected over 60 days are expected to be submitted to state officials by the beginning of May. If they are validated, that would trigger special elections that would take place after six weeks, likely in June or July.
Democrats said they have a reasonable chance of capturing at least three Republican seats that would be needed to win back control of the chamber. Among the most vulnerable is GOP state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who represents a La Crosse district that President Barack Obama won in 2008. House Democrats would also savor the ouster of Kapanke, who in the 2010 elections waged a tough race against Rep. Ron Kind (D).
One Republican target is state Sen. Julie Lassa (D), who lost to Rep. Sean Duffy (R) in a race for the seat vacated by longtime Rep. David Obey (D). The DCCC is letting voters know that Duffy attended a fundraiser with Walker last weekend in an attempt to tie him to the increasingly unpopular governor.
Liberal groups said they have already raised more than $2 million to spur the recall effort.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, which was founded by former presidential contender Howard Dean (D), have raised $800,000 that is being used for targeted radio and television buys in the state Senate districts.
MoveOn.org has raised another $1.5 million, most of which is going directly to the Wisconsin Democratic Party to coordinate the petition-gathering efforts.
"Wisconsin has become a proxy fight for the whole larger struggle on the future of the middle class and the American dream," said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.
The major labor unions are also on the ground in Wisconsin urging their volunteers to help in the petition-collecting efforts and show up various protest rallies.
The AFL-CIO, in a memo issued Tuesday, also suggested the fight is likely to spread to other states where legislation has been introduced curtailing union activity. The umbrella group for organized labor is planning a series of nationwide events on April 4, including vigils, house parties and rallies to highlight their issues.
Although not yet as active as their liberal counterparts, conservative groups are also preparing for battle in the Badger State.
GOPAC is on the air this week with a cable television buy intended to bolster state Sen. Randy Hopper (R), whose district includes Oshkosh.
"A number of conservative groups are doing our part," said David Avella, president of GOPAC. The Tea Party Express is also asking members for donations to fight organized labor and the recall efforts.
Wisconsin political observers said that because of the state's campaign finance laws, the big money will likely come pouring in sooner rather than later. Individuals and PACs can give unlimited amounts during the petition-gathering period.
However, once the state determines that a recall election should be triggered, the candidates must abide by campaign giving limits for the six-week election period. Those limits are $1,000 for both individuals and PACs. PACs also have an overall limit of $17,525.
"If I have a million bucks I might as well give it during the petition process," said Kevin Kennedy, the director and general counsel of the state's Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin. But even during the election period, outside groups may spend unlimited amounts on advocacy media spots.
Jay Heck, the executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of Common Cause, predicted there will be "an avalanche of national interest" in the recall races.
"Everyone will be in here," he said. "It will be good for the restaurant business."
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