OCONOMOWOC, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Robin Milaeger whoops for joy and punches her fist in the air when the man at her door asks if she wants a yard sign supporting Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, who faces a contentious recall election on June 5.
“I was wondering when you would show up,” Milaeger says to Mike Kozaria, who is canvassing voters in her conservative neighborhood in Oconomowoc, some 30 miles west of Milwaukee. “Walker promised he’d make tough choices to fix Wisconsin and he kept his word.”
When Kozaria asks if she would volunteer to help re-elect Walker, Milaeger says she wants to call voters on his behalf.
Kozaria, who works for conservative group American Majority Action, enters Milaeger’s details into his smartphone using a new get-out-the-vote application called Gravity - which the group provides free to Tea Party activists - that uploads the information to a central database.
“We’re not here to convince people,” says Kozaria, 18, of his presence in this right-leaning art of Oconomowoc, a town of around 16,000 people. “We’re here to make sure the right people get out to vote.”
American Majority Action is one of several national groups that specialize in working with grassroots activists and are campaigning on Walker’s behalf in the special election. The vote, which could oust the governor from office, follows a petition backed by Democrats and labor unions opposing a law passed soon after Walker took office in 2011 that curtails the power of public-sector unions.
Grassroots organizing has often been neglected by the Republican Party establishment, which has traditionally relied more on advertising to reach voters. But the Internet and social media like Facebook have enabled individualistic conservatives to link up with politically like-minded people, and a thriving industry of volunteer political groups has arisen in recent years.
The organizations that cater to this new class of conservative activists will have seen their funding grow at least sevenfold since 2008, to $140 million, if 2012 fundraising estimates from conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP) provided to Reuters prove accurate.
Re-electing Walker is a crucial test for them in a presidential and congressional election year.
“This is the epicenter of all we do,” said Luke Hilgemann, Wisconsin state director of AFP, which is funded by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who own oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries. It has invested more than $10 million in the state since February 2011.
Wisconsin is shaping up to be a semifinal match in the get-out-the-vote tournament, with the final being the November presidential election, which is expected to be close.
A Walker victory would be highly symbolic for the right. Conservatives respect and fear the “ground game” labor unions use to get Democrats out to vote, above all in the manufacturing state of Wisconsin. So a win for Walker, who has maintained a single-digit lead in polls over his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, would be seen as a major conservative victory.
“The envy of the whole grassroots movement has always been the unions,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, which is headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey. “In Wisconsin, we face the best of the best.”
But successfully marshaling a grassroots activist army in Wisconsin is about more than just bragging rights. It would also help bring in more money for conservative grassroots efforts ahead of November’s U.S. presidential election.
“Even if they don’t like him, it could be these guys who push (Republican presidential candidate Mitt) Romney over the line,” against Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama, said Republican strategist Ford O‘Connell.
“They have taken a bet on Wisconsin and now have to deliver the results to get more money,” O‘Connell, chairman of the CivicForum political action committee, said.
But Republicans may pay a price for a conservative base that is not merely energized but organized. The party “establishment” has been forced to the right of the political spectrum by the Tea Party and may have to tack further right to appease grassroots activists.
“If Republicans see these groups can deliver, they will be more likely to cave in to some of their demands,” O‘Connell said.
Before the 2008 election few voters or donors knew of AFP, FreedomWorks or American Majority, which together raised a little under $23 million that year.
The advent of the Tea Party movement shortly after President Obama took office in early 2009 brought them many thousands of Americans willing to do the unpaid work of going door-to-door for conservative causes.
In a mad dash before the 2010 midterm elections, with get-out-the-vote training, phone bank software and yard signs, conservative activists helped Republicans take the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives plus state 20 state legislative chambers from Alabama to New Hampshire.
That helped raise money. Based on statements from representatives of AFP, Tea Party Patriots - a Tea Party umbrella group that was founded in 2009 and raised $12.2 million in 2011 - plus American Majority and FreedomWorks, these conservative groups are on track to raise at least $140 million in 2012.
AFP expects to raise $100 million of that total.
A May 30 Politico article said “Koch-related organizations” plan to spend around $400 million ahead of the election.
“There has been a big change over the last four years,” AFP’s Phillips said. “Donors have become more generous because they realize we are more philosophical than political and can go into neighborhoods like never before.”
“Donors appreciate it when you fight on the issues and you do so effectively,” he added.
Wisconsin’s recall election is a “unique opportunity” for both sides because it is a high-profile race in a battleground state before the presidential election, said Charles Franklin, a professor of law and policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Nearly as many Republicans as Democrats showed up to vote in the May 8 primary. While Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett received 58 percent in the competitive Democratic primary, Walker took nearly 97 percent in what was billed an uncompetitive primary.
Local conservative groups are doing their own thing. The Racine, Wisconsin Tea Party, for instance, has formed a political action committee to fund a June 2 rally in support of Walker and local Republican state Senator Van Wanggaard, who is also facing recall for supporting Walker.
But national groups are pouring resources into the race. In the days running up to the election, AFP will boost its staff in Wisconsin to 60 from seven and will hold a bus tour as part of its effort to galvanize conservatives.
American Majority Action provided Reuters with a Web tutorial on Gravity, an app that allows grassroots leaders to identify registered Republican voters in a neighborhood and set up walking lists with on-foot directions for activists. It can also be used to call voters over the Internet at low cost.
When Mike Kozaria approaches a home in Oconomowoc, his phone tells him the names of the registered voters there and prompts him to mark whether there is a yard sign out front.
Using Gravity, Kozaria asks his respondents which issue matters most - the economy, debt, immigration, healthcare or education - with a follow-up question based on their answer. While Tea Party activists get Gravity free, American Majority Action gets access to the first three answers in any survey.
Raz Shafer of American Majority Action, who provided the Gravity tutorial, said elected officials who have used it say the technology enables them to reach up to four times as many voters compared to old-fashioned printed walking lists.
AFP declined to show Reuters its proprietary voter database application, called Themis, but said it is broadly like American Majority’s Gravity. Both said their application should give the edge to conservatives in get-out-the-vote drives.
Tea Party Patriots is making its first major foray into a single state race here, paying travel and accommodation costs for some 100 Tea Party activists from around the country to go door-to-door in the three weeks leading up to June 5. Co-founder Jenny Beth Martin is among them.
All these groups have volunteers calling Wisconsin voters.
Tea Party Express, associated with longtime Republican strategist Sal Russo, will also visit Wisconsin just before the recall election as part of a multistate bus tour.
Marquette University’s Franklin says a victory for either side will be laden with symbolism.
“If conservatives can demonstrate they can go toe-to-toe with the unions, it will be a major boost for them,” he said. “But if the unions win, they can say, ‘Look, we took all these lumps and we’re still standing.”
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Douglas Royalty