(Updates with comments from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, starting in fourth paragraph.)
By Annie Linskey and Lisa Lerer
June 20 (Bloomberg) -- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s implication in a campaign-finance probe is reshaping the field for the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
As prospective candidates fanned out in Washington, a federal judge in Milwaukee yesterday released documents that allege Walker coordinated spending with outside groups during 2012 recall races, which is illegal under state law.
Combined with a bridge-closing scandal shadowing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the development means two prospective candidates with ties to the party’s business wing are hobbled.
In remarks today at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, Christie sought to broaden his base of support with the party’s religiously minded activists.
The governor cast the party’s opposition to abortion rights in a broader frame, saying Republicans should support drug treatment and other traditionally Democratic programs.
“If you’re pro-life, as I am, you have to be pro-life for the whole life,” he said.
The government’s 40-year war on drugs “hasn’t worked,” he said. “What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to get the tools they need to deal with their disease.”
As he left the stage, more than half of the audience stood to applaud.
Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said the investigations of the two governors could have multiple affects.
“If it serves to shrink the field, then it potentially helps a candidate like Rand Paul,” she said in a reference to the senator from Kentucky who is considering a bid.
“It may also entice other candidates to consider running. If it doesn’t shrink the field, it gives the other candidates a lot of ammunition to use in the primary,” Duffy said in an e-mail.
The shifting fortunes come as Republicans are engaged in an intraparty power struggle between the Tea Party movement, which wants to curb the government’s reach, and business allies, who are supporting candidates willing to compromise to get things done. That tug-of-war could come to a head in the primary as candidates from both wings are expected to run.
The party’s challenges will continue beyond that fight, as Democrats are already uniting behind -- and pouring millions into -- a campaign machine designed to propel the candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The longer this goes on, and the closer that we get to the presidential primary season, the more this is going to hang over their heads,” said Rodell Mollineau, former president of the Democratic research group American Bridge 21st Century.
Walker, a polarizing figure in his home state who became a Republican star after taking on public sector labor unions in 2011, is up for re-election in November. His successful campaign beating back the 2012 recall challenge boosted his national profile within the party. The allegations that surfaced yesterday stem from activities during the recall campaign.
In court documents released yesterday, Walker touted the work of one of his campaign aides in coordinating fundraising and campaign activity among conservative groups in a 2011 e-mail to Republican strategist Karl Rove, according to the unsealed court papers. The groups included the Wisconsin chapter of Club for Growth.
He “helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin,” Walker wrote Rove on May 4, 2011, referring to his staff member, according to the documents.
Alleigh Marre, a Walker spokeswoman, said in an e-mail yesterday that the governor’s re-election campaign is “not party to the federal suit” and it has “no control over any of the documents in that suit.”
Speaking to reporters in Wisconsin, Walker said he “can’t imagine” that he e-mailed Rove suggesting any coordination.
In a written statement, he said, “The accusation of any wrongdoing written in the complaint by the office of a partisan Democrat District Attorney by me or by my campaign is categorically false.”
Kevin Madden, a top adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Walker’s focus now must turn to his re-election.
“Bottom line is that 2014 is more important than 2016 to Scott Walker right now,” Madden said in an e-mail. “If he earns re-election, the 2016 considerations of voters won’t be affected by this.”
As Walker fended off accusations in his home state, half a dozen other candidates took to podiums to make their case to hundreds of activists at the Faith and Freedom conference.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz emerged as a crowd favorite, winning several standing ovations as he focused most of his remarks on the importance of religious freedom.
“We’re seeing our constitutional rights under attack,” said Cruz. “At no time in this country’s history have we seen the threats to liberty more dire than they are now.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another possible 2016 contender, also addressed the group. The audience applauded Rubio, yet largely stayed in their seats.
He spoke of his parents’ journey to America from Cuba and his concern that for many the “dream of equality and opportunity” that this country promises is “slipping away.”
“We must reinvigorate the role of values in our country,” he said, ticking off hard work, discipline and self-control as attributes leaders should emphasize.
The speaking roster for today included Paul and Christie, who is trying to move past a scandal involving longtime staff members accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the governor’s re-election.
Paul was introduced with a video broadcast on two screens showing him in campaign mode. Even while standing in a Washington ballroom, he sought to distance himself from the nation’s capital, saying: “I’ve met the enemy, and the enemy is, too often, us.”
Others speakers include U.S. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and businessman Herman Cain, a 2012 primary contender, are also scheduled to address the conference.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a former primary candidate, made a separate appearance in Washington at a lunch with reporters, telling them that he’ll be “better prepared” for a second run for the White House.
His 2012 campaign became a punchline after Perry, in a nationally televised debate, was unable to recall all the government agencies he planned to eliminate if elected.
“Preparation is the single most important lesson that I learned out of that process,” he said at the event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “And over the last 18 months, I have focused on being substantially better prepared.”