WASHINGTON (AP) — During Wisconsin Democrats' 2012 effort to recall Scott Walker from office, a host of conservative media and public-policy organizations pushed back, documenting uncouth behavior by Walker's opponents and ferreting out alleged anti-Walker bias in the press.
All of the groups shared a common backer: the Bradley Foundation, a conservative Milwaukee philanthropic organization that sits atop an endowment of more than $800 million. The foundation is led by Walker's three-time campaign chairman, Michael Grebe, and overseen by board members who have personally contributed more than $700,000 to Walker since he launched his first gubernatorial campaign.
The foundation itself is a tax-exempt nonprofit that can never give to Walker's campaigns. Instead, it spends its money promoting ideas and what Grebe calls "capacity building" — the creation of like-minded entities that can shepherd policy from think-tanks to the media, legislators and courts.
But for a candidate whose views line up with the foundation's — and Walker's certainly do — the infrastructure Bradley has built may be invaluable yet again. With Jeb Bush expected to dominate Republican fundraising, the groups that Bradley has spent decades building could provide a counterweight for an ideologically compatible candidate.
"The Bradley Foundation millions have bought Scott Walker an insurance policy from criticism by the intellectual right," said Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy group.
Bradley, however, is careful to make its separation from campaign politics explicit: Grebe will only discuss his personal support for Scott Walker on a privately paid-for phone. But the foundation's advocates and opponents both say that abstention renders it no less potent.
The foundation's resources trace back to Harry and Lynde Bradley, self-made Milwaukee industrialists.
A former head of the state's Republican Party, Grebe took over the foundation's operations in 2002. Bradley provides millions of dollars each year to local organizations including theater companies, programs for inner city youth and the Milwaukee Zoo, but the majority of its money goes toward backing public policy on the state and national level. Chosen organizations promote right-to-work legislation, charter schools, conservative family values and the potentially positive impact of climate change.
Bradley's style — support the development of public policy ideas, then spend potentially decades seeding organizations that back them— has earned the admiration of even philanthropic opponents.
"They've been very smart of how they've done their work, and it appears they've stayed on the right side of the law," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a trade group for left-leaning foundations.
Grebe first met Walker when the future governor was at Marquette University and Grebe was Wisconsin's Republican national committeeman. Grebe cut his first check to a Walker campaign — for $100 — in 1993, and the men later served together on the state party committee. When Walker asked, Grebe agreed to be chairman of his 2010 campaign.
"I watched this guy for 20 years," Grebe said. "I watched him develop, and was tremendously impressed with his emotional and physical stamina."
Though he served as chairman of all three of Walker's gubernatorial elections, Grebe said he expects to take an unofficial role in Walker's prospective national campaign.
"I don't clutter up his inbox or his cell phone," Grebe said. "But he knows that I'm here."
Though Bradley's impact is most obvious in Wisconsin, the foundation's support for scores of policy-minded organizations outside the state gives it unusual clout as a convener. On a periodic basis, Bradley's leadership organizes meetings in Washington bringing together likeminded activists involved in a particular cause, such as tort reform or labor.
"You've got this collaborative work going on from groups that don't cooperate as much as they should," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a regular Bradley grantee.
Bradley's work in Washington has touched prominent conservatives in the media as well. For the last 13 years, the foundation has hosted The Bradley Prizes, an annual Kennedy Center gala at which the foundation gives out four $250,000 awards. Past winners include Jeb Bush, for his work on behalf of charter schools, as well as Wall Street Journal editorial board members Kimberly Strassel and Paul Gigot and conservative media figures such as Michael Barone, William Kristol and Roger Ailes.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.