• BY STEPHEN F. HAYES
It is in that last role that Grebe may ultimately prove most helpful to Walker. Over his years at the Bradley Foundation, Grebe has developed a strong, national network of policy wonks and analysts on issues ranging from civil society and education reform to national security and urban renewal. Unlike many campaign advisers, particularly at the national level, Grebe, by virtue of his work at Bradley, speaks the language of movement conservatives and understands the importance of policy to a successful campaign. It’s hard to imagine a candidate tutored by Grebe referring to himself as “severely conservative.”
Grebe says Walker doesn’t require much guidance on such matters. “Scott is a movement conservative and he always has been.”
I asked Grebe about a New York Times article from last month that purported to explain Walker’s electoral success. With a hint of dark conspiracy, the article suggested that Walker had been an unremarkable and unsophisticated local politician until Grebe and a band of big-money right-wing ideologues plucked him from obscurity in order to advance their schemes. (That’s no exaggeration: theTimes piece reported that while Walker “always liked to go to extremes…what he needed, as he climbed the political ladder, was the money and endorsements that [Grebe] and his conservative allies brought.”)
The article “was a totally unfair characterization of our relationship,” Grebe says, offering several specific examples of ways in which he says the piece was misleading in order to fit the preconceived narrative of its authors. (In one, he says that he responded to a question about first meeting Walker by saying that he recalled it came at a meeting of college Republicans at Marquette University, where the future governor was a student. In the telling of the Times, the insignificant aside became a big moment in Grebe’s grooming of Walker for future manipulation).
Grebe made these observations only after a question about the article and in a tone that suggests far more disappointment and resignation than anger. And Grebe made clear that he wasn’t so much concerned about the way he came off in the piece but was frustrated by the way Walker was portrayed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grebe declined an invitation to dilate on his theory of the race and Walker’s path to the nomination. But asked whether Walker needs to win Iowa, Grebe lowered expectations. “I don’t think he has to win it, but clearly he’s well-liked there. If you look at the polls, he’s doing well in Iowa and I would expect him to continue to do well there.”
But whatever happens in Iowa, Scott Walker has signaled with his selection of Mike Grebe as his campaign chairman that he intends to run nationally as the candidate who's acceptable both to the Republican grass roots and establishment—but even more important perhaps, as the candidate of the mainstream conservative movement.
Grebe’s role, while not unexpected, is nonetheless a coup for Walker, who has firmly established himself as a first-tier candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination. Grebe served as chairman of both of Walker’s bids for governor, as well as Walker’s 2012 recall election – so he knows the candidate well.
Grebe brings vast experience in electoral politics, election law, and the conservative movement to the Walker team. He has served as general counsel of the Republican National Committee and as a Republican committeeman from Wisconsin. Grebe is currently president of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a position he has held since 2002. The powerhouse grantmaking foundation has driven conservative policy innovation for decades and, in addition to the civic and charity work it has performed in Wisconsin, has been one of the most important forces behind the modern conservative movement.
“He has this unique combination of talent and experience in politics and policy that makes him one of the most respected people I’ve known,” says Karl Rove, former top adviser to George W. Bush.
Those who have worked with Grebe say his equanimity will help bring a steady hand to the Walker campaign team. “He’s bright, low-key, unflappable,” says Rove. “He has the demeanor of the lawyer that your family has depended on for years.”
Bob Wood, former chief of staff to Wisconsin Governor and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, says Grebe “is always at the top of people’s list to call whenever there is a problem or heated issue. Never any headlines, drama or hyperbole – just a clear focus on the issue and how to get the job done.”
Before his work with Walker, Grebe chaired Representative Mark Green’s 2006 candidacy for Wisconsin governor. Fighting national headwinds in what would be the worst midterm election cycle for Republicans in a generation, Green lost a competitive race to incumbent Governor Jim Doyle. “Mike is one of the most respected conservative leaders I know,” says Green, who describes Grebe’s conservatism as “restless and relentless.” Green says Grebe is “quietly one of the most influential leaders on the scene today.”
In a telephone interview Thursday between meetings of the not-quite-yet-campaign, Grebe said he intends to remain in his position at the Bradley Foundation throughout the campaign, much as he did during Walker’s two gubernatorial elections.
Sources close to Walker say that the governor listens carefully to Grebe and welcomes his challenges. If Walker is sometimes his own top political adviser, with an abiding interest in campaign tactics, Grebe will fill the role of senior adviser with an eye towards big picture decision-making. That is a strength.
“For so many decades, conservatism was at a huge institutional disadvantage compared to liberalism. To the extent that disadvantage has diminished, and it certainly has, Michael Grebe is a big part of the reason why,” says Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former top adviser to George W. Bush. “He's a man who is both principled and prudent, two impressive conservative virtues, and he understands the importance of the long game.”
Grebe says he didn’t have a long talk with Walker about the details of his day-to-day role in the campaign because such a conversation was unnecessary, given their past work together. “We have direct and candid exchanges,” says Grebe.
“Mike wouldn’t have taken the job unless he was going to have a significant role,” says one Republican who has worked closely with both men.
Rove agrees and says that Grebe will have a big portfolio. “Mike has the respect of the grassroots, because he came from them; the donors, because he’s one of them; and the intellectuals and thinkers because he’s been involved in their work for years.”