How Scott Walker’s Secret Emails Could Doom Him For 2016

February 21, 2014 6:00 a.m.

A massive document dump released this week about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has revealed some embarrassing tidbits about former aides to the governor. So far there hasn’t been a bombshell directly linking governor to legal misconduct, but the the slow burn of the scandal — and his reluctance to answer questions about it — may drag down any presidential or vice-presidential ambitions Walker had in 2016.

“I think it’s damaging, not because there was a lot of new information in the emails that were released, but because it put the story back on the front pages and it’s really displaced the other things that the governor would prefer to talk about in an re-election year,” University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry C. Burden told TPM.

Walker’s focus outside of the investigations have been on highlighting tax cuts he pushed through the state legislature as well as job creation.

“Those things have just been taken off the front pages because John Doe emails have taken their place,” Burden added. “It’s the drip, drip, drip that I think is problematic for the incumbent.”

So far the juiciest nuggets out of the documents are mostly on top Walker aides forwarding offensive jokes (including one about a nightmare of being gay, a minority, HIV positive and a Democrat) and officials moving to push out a new employee after they found out she had been a thong model. Other details included staffers setting up a secret wireless router and using personal computers to conduct campaign business on government time.

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“The real question is whether Walker knew about it or had a hand in it and there’s only light circumstantial evidence,” Burden said.

The investigation, commonly referred to as a “John Doe” investigation, is actually one of two secret investigations that has dogged Walker in recent months. The other one has to do with a campaign finance and spending in the Walker recall elections a few years ago. The fact that there are two separate investigations, one of which is rather technical for someone not deeply involved in politics, likely helps Walker.

Still, “these things may spook donors or elites who get involved in the presidential nomination process who hold fundraisers or get behind candidates,” Burden added. “So there may be some trepidation there.”

There’s enough that’s come out so far to make Walker sweat, election law attorney Joseph M. Birkenstock told TPM.

“If what they did in fact was to moot the need for separately paid office space by just using the taxpayer provided space — albeit on a separate router — during the same day workday that they’re supposed to be working on the business of the public, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s some issues involved there,” Birkenstock said.

There’s also the possibility that the investigations could hurt Walker’s reelection efforts. Likely 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke already made a statement about the Walker emails.

“Absolutely, I think voters have a right to know who they’re voting for and whether there are any legal issues surrounding candidates,” Burke said in response to a question from reporters about whether voters should pay attention to the investigation.

The fact that Walker is going through this now is both a blessing and a curse, Republican political strategist J. Hogan Gidley told TPM.

“It’s happening so far out from any potential presidential run that time can go by and no one remembers it,” Gidley said. “However if it’s not resolved and it continues to drag on then for the next two years … then you’re dead by a thousand cuts before you even get to a presidential cycle,” Gidley said.

Burden, the Wisconsin political science professor, compared the investigations to one that Republican voters may not be interested in revisiting.

“It actually reminds me of the Troopergate scandal that plagued Sarah Palin for a while,” Burden said. “It was complicated, there was a personal element to it, there was a professional element to it.”

“In the end it was sort of he-said she-said, there was a report that was produced but the average voter was not going to read that and it was a concern, it was a distraction for her campaign,” Burden said.

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