How the Republican Governors Association Framed the Recall

Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about the Wisconsin recall at a technology and politics conference.

Matt Gagnon, the digital director for the Republican Governors Association (RGA), represented the conservative voice on the panel. Gagnon is a hired gun who previously worked for a union, the NFL’s Player Association.

The Republican Governors Association may not be well known, but it should be. As I’ve written previously, the group played a major role in the Republican takeover of seven governorships in 2010 elections—including Wisconsin. And it spent at least $9 million in the recall. Most of the money goes toward ads.

The Republican Governors Association and groups like them are starting to take the place of national political committees. They sometimes spend more money than the candidates. It’s understandable—these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money.

The groups file with the IRS as a nonprofit “527” committee. (The 527 refers to the tax code.) This status gives the group lots of flexibility, as there are no upper limits on contributions, and any type of donor can contribute.

The top donors to the Republican Governors Association are a who’s who of corporations: Amway, AT&T, Blue Cross, Koch Industries, PhRMA, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

527 groups such as the Republican Governors Association are ways to shuffle money around, says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The groups act as clearinghouses “to wipe fingerprints off the money,” he says. Thus, voters are unable to see which companies or CEOs are influencing their state elections.

Gagnon’s presentation confirmed what I had suspected: The RGA had a well-thought out plan, and executed it brilliantly.

The RGA didn’t spend money getting conservatives to vote; it spent money on the 4 percent of undecided voters.

“The key was to do it early,” said Gagnon, noting the Democrats were at a disadvantage since they had a primary. The RGA had a chance to define the race before the Dems could define themselves.

In February, the RGA had a “high level strategy meeting.” First, it came up with a message: a recall should happen only if there was criminal behavior or malfeasance.

Second, all mail, TV, and online ad buys were coordinated. It partnered with Facebook and took advantage of exclusion targeting, looking for those people who did not identify as conservative or liberal. “So when we went with ads that were against Barrett or Falk, we had YouTube video ready to go, and a mailing piece, and cookie targeting,” said Gagnon. “We reinforced our message with a tight demographic of people.”

Gagnon argued that Walker’s victory wasn’t just about the money. He said they had a message that resonated with people.

Back in November 2011, polls showed 58 percent of the state wanted to see Walker recalled. But by the time of the election, the numbers had changed and Walker won. No doubt the RGA’s well-organized campaign played a huge role in flipping the race. After Walker’s win, people who supported him told me that recalls should only be used for criminal behavior.

Also on the panel was Ian Murphy, the Koch prank caller. He said that objective reality almost doesn’t matter anymore; it’s about framing and money. I can agree with that. (Murphy has his own hilarious take on the panel.)

If you liked this story by Elizabeth DiNovella, the Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine, check out her story "An Interview with Lizz Winstead."

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