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2014's best conspiracy theory: Chris Christie is trying to make Scott Walker lose

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Is Chris Christie trying to sabotage Scott Walker's reelection campaign?

Over the past few days, a battle of leaks has been waged on behalf of two of the GOP's top 2016 presidential contenders. One, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, is currently in an extremely tight reelection race. The other, Chris Christie, heads the Republican Governors Association, a group that's supposed to spend money to help candidates like Walker. Recently, Walker has publicly appealed for more money from the RGA, suggesting that the group hasn't been spending enough on his race.

Could Christie be withholding RGA cash from Walker, in hopes that a potential presidential rival will go down to defeat? Some Wisconsin Republicans apparently think this is possible, but the numbers that are out there don't seem to back this up. Here's a guide to one of the most intriguing conspiracy theories of the 2014 elections.

The timeline

  • On October 21, Walker made a public appeal for more RGA cash in an interview with the Washington Post's Robert Costa. "Hopefully that comes through," Walker told Costa. "We are always looking for more help. Our main help has to be the RGA."
  • On October 23, the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes and John McCormack reported that "a number of influential Wisconsin Republicans" were wondering if Christie was deliberately "tanking" Walker by withholding support from the RGAn. However, "a GOP source with knowledge of RGA spending" assured the authors that the RGA planned to spend $10 million in the state, including $4 to $5 million in the final weeks.
  • Hours later, there was a new twist. Costa reported that the RGA had just decided to increase its planned Wisconsin ad spending in the final weeks — from the previously-planned amount of $900,000, up to $2 million. Note that those numbers are far lower than the ones quoted to the Weekly Standard.
  • The next day, Hayes and McCormack weighed in again, and said they'd lost confidence in the source who defended the RGA. They argued that the newly-quoted spending total looked lower than it should be, and added, "What's more, Wisconsin GOP sources dispute the RGA's claim to have spent $6 million to date, putting the figure at closer to $3 million." (However, disclosure forms filed in Wisconsin by the RGA's political arm for the state put the number at just over $5 million as of October 20.)
  • On Monday, the tensions spilled into public, as Politico's Alex Burns reported. When Walker was asked if he felt the RGA was giving him enough support, he again said he hoped the RGA would spend more on ads — and that a planned visit to the state by Christie was not what he needed. "[Christie] is coming because he asked if he could come and we weren't going to say no," Walker said, according to Burns. "But we're not looking for surrogates." (Later that day Walker walked this back a bit.)

Should the RGA be spending more on Walker?

It's clear Christie hasn't cut Walker off entirely — the RGA had spent at least $5 million on behalf of Walker by October 20, according to a disclosure form filed in Wisconsin. About $2 million was spent back in February or March, and another $2.8 million or so has been spent since September. If the RGA in fact does spend $2 million more on ads for Walker, as it says it will, its total Wisconsin spending will be $7 to $8 million.

It's a bit trickier to assess whether that level of spending is appropriate for the race, compared to other races. Some states are big or have expensive media markets, making more money is necessary to run ads. And each state has its own disclosure system, making an apples-to-apples comparison difficult. Since the RGA is expected to spend the most on its own incumbents in close races, here's how much it's spent on several of them so far, according to various media reports:

Keep in mind that that Wisconsin's population is 5.7 million — Michigan's is 9.8 million, and Florida's is 19.5 million. Florida's race is just as close as Walker's. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has slightly more of an advantage in his race, but it's still tight.

With that in mind, there doesn't appear to be an evident anomaly in the RGA's Wisconsin spending. Indeed, despite Christie's reputation for strong-arming his opponents, it could well be Walker — no stranger to hardball politics — who's doing the strong-arming here. A message has been sent: if Walker doesn't get more cash and ends up losing, Christie will be blamed for the defeat of the conservative hero who took on the unions. With that possibility in mind, why wouldn't Christie pay up?

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