MADISON, Wis. – Political operatives from across the spectrum are scouring the thousands of e-mails exchanged by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's campaign staff and those who worked for him when he was Milwaukee County executive, trying to find items they can use to attack or defend the state's most polarizing figure.
Liberals and conservatives alike have been hunting through the 28,000 pages of documents for their names, as well as the names of political friends and enemies.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said it was "like winning the lottery" for people doing opposition research on Walker.
American Bridge 21st Century, a political action committee funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, said it assembled a team of researchers to pore over the e-mails and post what it finds on a specially created website.
Joe Fadness, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party and one of those named in the e-mails, criticized American Bridge while refusing to say whether the GOP was undertaking its own review of the documents.
"American Bridge is a desperate attack group funded by billionaire George Soros with the single goal of misleading voters," Fadness said. "While they focus their time on distorted attacks, Republicans under Governor Scott Walker will continue moving Wisconsin forward."
The e-mails were collected during a criminal investigation into whether Walker's aides were illegally doing campaign work for the 2010 election while being paid as county employees.
The files include thousands of messages to and from Walker as well as key members of his county office and campaign inner circle. They offer a rare insiders' look into both Walker and the daily operations of his gubernatorial campaign.
Walker wasn't charged in the investigation, but it continues to shadow him. The e-mail release is proving to be an unwanted distraction as he mounts his re-election campaign and eyes a possible 2016 run for president.
"This is old news," Walker said Saturday at the National Governors Association meeting, adding the interest in e-mails is "a lot of hype from our opponents who desperately want to shift the subject away because we have good results."
The governor was targeted in a 2012 recall election prompted by anger over his 2011 law that eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees.
More than 900,000 people signed the recall petition, and their signatures have been posted online in a database now used to vet political candidates, elected officials, co-workers, and sometimes even friends. Last summer, Walker rescinded the appointment of a University of Wisconsin-Platteville student to the UW Board of Regents after the student confirmed he had signed the recall petition.
Democratic and Republican staffers and lobbyists whose jobs require them to work with Walker told the Associated Press they had searched for their names, but they wouldn't admit it publicly because they didn't want to jeopardize their relationship with the governor.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he hadn't yet searched for his name but knew plenty of people who had. He also expected that Republicans were searching the documents just as avidly.
"They are searching to spin the next little bomb that comes out," he said.
Erpenbach's name does appear in the e-mails but only in news articles that were forwarded to staffers.
In contrast, a number of e-mails contain unkind remarks about Mike Tate, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman. In one e-mail, Kelly Rindfleisch, who was then Walker's deputy chief of staff, joked to Walker's campaign manager about wanting to take Tate out.
"How do you not blow a nut with all the lies that the democrats put out," wrote Rindfleisch, who was later convicted of doing campaign work on county time. "It makes me wanna get Villa's uncle mike to make mike tate disappear."
Tate, who took the message in stride, said it is indicative of the kind of culture Walker created in his office.
"This opens a door into how Scott Walker's world operates, and it's pretty repugnant," Tate said.