WASHINGTON — During the run-up to the recall election to kick Scott Walker out of office in 2012 as Wisconsin's governor, a host of conservative media and public-policy organizations pushed back.
A Wisconsin think-tank called The MacIver Institute questioned the validity of signatures supporting the referendum. Another, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, argued that the recall effort betrayed the state constitution's progressive spirit. The Wisconsin Reporter and Media Trackers, online publications, documented uncouth behavior by anti-Walker protesters and ferreted 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. 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 fundraising in the Republican primary, the groups that Bradley has spent decades building could provide a counterweight for an ideologically-driven 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 say that abstention renders it no less potent.
Over the course of more than two decades, Bradley has invested tens of millions of dollars each year to build conservative infrastructure around issues like school choice, labor and taxes at the state and national level. It holds an annual Kennedy Center gala to award four $250,000 prizes to influential conservatives. Winners include academics, pundits and two members of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
Donors can promote either candidates or ideas, "and while my fundraiser friends would probably dispute this, I think the second activity is more important," Grebe said in an interview last month.
The foundation's resources trace back to Harry and Lynde Bradley, self-made Milwaukee industrialists. When the brothers died — first Lynde, then Harry, who was a founding member of the anti-communist John Birch Society — they set aside money for a company-connected foundation supporting local civic institutions.
The foundation's size and scope grew when Rockwell automation purchased the Bradleys' company in 1985 for $1.65 billion, inflating the foundation's assets to $290 million. Under the leadership of firebrand Michael Joyce, Bradley shifted its giving toward developing and promoting conservative thinking on topics such as school vouchers.
A former head of the state's Republican Party, Grebe took over the foundation's operations in 2002, after retiring as the head of Milwaukee-based law firm Foley Lardner LLP. Bradley provides millions of dollars each year to local organizations including theater companies, programs for inner city youth and the Milwaukee Zoo, but most 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. Both were party volunteers, "though I was a little bit higher in the food chain of volunteering," Grebe said.
Grebe cut his first check to a Walker campaign — for $100 — in 1993, and the men later served together on the state party committee. But as Walker's star rose in Wisconsin, Grebe ratcheted back on politics. He resigned from the Republican National Committee out of concern that it required too much time and partisanship.
But when Walker asked, Grebe agreed to be chairman of his 2010 campaign all the same.
"I watched this guy for 20 years," Grebe said. "I watched him develop, and was tremendously impressed with his emotional and physical stamina."
Grebe headed Walker's transition committee after his 2010 victory and was Walker's campaign chairman again during the recall and then the 2014 election. Walker isn't Grebe's only powerful Republican friend. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, called Grebe "virtually my political godfather."
Still, Grebe said he expects to take only 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."
On matters such as reducing environmental regulation and restructuring the University of Wisconsin's educational system, Bradley-funded groups have often preceded the governor's policies. And over the last year, foundation grantees have aggressively challenged an investigation into possible campaign finance law violations by Walker allies.
That has led Bradley's Wisconsin opponents like One Wisconsin Now to argue the foundation surreptitiously backs Walker. Grebe rejects that, noting Bradley's support of the organizations goes back to well before Walker's governorship. He describes the foundation's goal as "capacity building" — the creation of like-minded entities that can shepherd ideas from think-tanks to the media, legislators and courts.
Though that network is most obvious in Wisconsin, Bradley'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 a meeting in Washington bringing together all the conservative 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 with its Bradley Prizes.
"We hoped that the accomplishments of these people would get into the popular culture through the media, the way that the McArthur Awards do, or — and this is a stretch — the Oscars or the Emmys," Grebe said.
Featuring Bradley Foundation board member George Will as master of ceremonies and music by country singer Lee Greenwood, the 2015 Bradley Prizes were awarded last week. 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.
Walker's name was not mentioned — nor was that of any other Republican candidate — though Bradley's work has provided an ideological stage.
"In Gov. Walker, you have a guy who takes good free-market reforms, school choice, tax rate reductions and labor law reform and implements them," Norquist said. "But the work that Bradley has done, that's all laid down — and anybody can make use of it."
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.