MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Activists with the conservative Tea Party movement say they owe a lot to their schooling in left-wing community organizing tactics for the historic Republican victory over the Democrats and their union allies in the Wisconsin recall election.
While the Democrats said huge campaign spending by conservatives supporters of Republican Scott Walker allowed him on Tuesday to become the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election, the Republicans point to their grassroots, get-out-the-vote work as more important.
“Advertising can only do so much,” said Ned Ryun, head of the national conservative group American Majority, whose sister group American Majority Action worked closely with Wisconsin activists. “But talking to someone face to face is a game changer.”
Combine that personal contact with energizing a mass movement of door knockers and the latest phone software technology to track voters and you have many of the ingredients for the victory, they say.
The conservative activists have literally taken a page out of a left-wing radical’s guide to organizing - as many have read the late Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”
Born in 1909 in Chicago, Alinsky - who died in 1972 - began his organizing career in the city’s poor Back of the Yards district and is widely considered the founder of modern community organizing.
“There was no manual for organizing on the right, so we adapted it to the conservative cause,” said Brown, of We the People of the Republic, a Tea Party group based in Madison, Wisconsin. “The left has been good at it for 100 years, so what better place to start?”
Labor unions and liberal activists forced the recall election against Walker because of his successful effort last year to curb the collective bargaining powers of public sector workers in the Midwestern U.S. state famous for its beer, cheese and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
The unions, with a reputation for excelling at grass-roots organizing, not only failed to oust Walker - but he beat his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by an even bigger margin than his 2010 gubernatorial victory.
Out-of-state conservatives flooded Wisconsin with tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash in an election seen as a barometer of the American political mood ahead of the November 6 presidential election. Walker outspend Barrett by more than 7-to-1.
Leading U.S. conservative donors made donations to boost Walker.
Luke Hilgemann, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, said the group coordinated a network of some 100,000 local activists. Most of their efforts centered on 17 key counties.
Money alone doesn’t win elections. In the three weeks before the election, Walker benefited from a disciplined get-out-the-vote drive mounted by people associated with the Tea Party movement, which reviles President Barack Obama. Wisconsin could be a key battleground state in the November 6 election as Obama seeks re-election against Republican Mitt Romney.
A lot of the campaign cash bankrolled a wave of pro-Walker advertising. Exit polls taken on Tuesday, however, indicated the ads may not have been a decisive factor; nearly 90 percent of voters say they chose their candidate before the ad barrage.
“Not only is the Tea Party alive and kicking, those guys ran a great get-out-the-vote campaign,” said Ford O‘Connell, a Republican strategist and chairman of the CivicForum PAC political group. “They have given away the secret recipe for what could win the election for Mitt Romney.”
“This is a paradigm shift,” added Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group chaired by former Republican House of Representatives Majority leader Dick Armey that provides training and resources to Tea Party activists. “If the grassroots embrace a cause, they make all the difference.”
Analysts said Democrats and unions made fundamental mistakes in Wisconsin. Instead of uniting behind one candidate to challenge Walker, Democrats waged a divisive primary and most unions did not back the eventual winner Tom Barrett, who has had his own disputes with unions as mayor of Milwaukee.
The Democrats lost valuable time and money while Walker was traveling the country collecting millions of dollars to back his election effort. They also may have miscalculated in choosing Barrett, who previously had lost to Walker in 2010.
“If they are going to recall a governor, it hardly makes sense to try to challenge him with a candidate who lost against him last time,” said Marick Masters, a professor of business and director of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
On Wednesday, top labor leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa were not acknowledging any mistakes publicly and dismissed the idea that events in Wisconsin had a broad implications for the labor movement’s future.
“Walker needed every last dime and every last divisive TV ad to maintain a weakened hold on his office,” Trumka said.
Success in Wisconsin this year came with the aid of technology such as a new get-out-the-vote app called Gravity that American Majority Action provided free to Tea Party activists, as conservatives targeted like-minded voters.
Prior to the election, Tea Party activists reported encountering voters who backed Walker but would be out of state on the day of the election. So activists helped them fill out absentee ballots.
“We would have lost those votes if we hadn’t showed up,” said Matt Batzel, state director of American Majority Action. “That’s what this is all about.”
Editing by Ed Tobin and Will Dunham