‘Big Money Behind the Big Lie’ exposes the Bradley Foundation role

By: - August 2, 2021 3:13 pm
(Photo: Alex Kent via Tennessee Lookout)

Washington D.C. Capitol riot 1/6/21 (Photo: Alex Kent via Tennessee Lookout)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos caved to the right-wing of his Republican caucus on Friday, expanding the election review he had ordered to include a full, “forensic” dissecting of ballots in an effort to find fraud in an election that has been reviewed and found to be accurate and fair by various courts, canvasses and the Wisconsin Election Commission. 

Vos had been claiming that his review, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman — who has been feeding into the conspiracy theory of a stolen election — was already an “Arizona-style audit,” and he had laid out a $72,000 taxpayer-funded investigation, which on Friday, he amplified to a sky’s-the-limit search for fraud.

Such audits, nine-months after President Joe Biden won the election, are a rallying call for the far right. And there is a Wisconsin institution putting big bucks behind them: The Bradley Foundation.

Based in Milwaukee, the group has long funded Republican causes from school vouchers to controversial “The Bell Curve” co-author Charles Murray — as well as arts activities that have led to a positive civic reputation. But the private, tax-exempt foundation is funding a number of groups tied to the Republican “Big Lie” that former President Donald Trump won the election because there was massive fraud. 

On Bradley’s board of directors is one of The Big Lie’s foremost propagators, attorney Cleta Mitchell, who notoriously joined Trump on his phone call to pressure Georgia election officials into “finding” more than 11,000 votes to overturn that state’s results. (The article gives a deep dive into her past, starting from her time as a liberal.)

The Bradley Foundation’s extensive funding of efforts to subvert elections are the topic of an in-depth piece in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer published Monday called “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie: Donald Trump’s attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and powerful conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs.” 

Mayer calculates that since 2012 the Bradley Foundation has spent some $18 million on groups tied to radical election bills, and most recently on stoking false fears of a stolen election. She writes, “It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries.” 

She looks at how the foundation, with an endowment of $850 million, is playing a role in taking what used to be far-right Tea Party or QAnon ideas and getting them backed and promoted by mainstream Republicans, like Vos.

Mayer tracks the Bradley Foundation from its 1903 roots to the present, and shows its funding ties to the following groups hell bent on undermining the 2020 presidential election:

  • Heritage Foundation
  • ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council)
  • Federalist Society
  • Honest Elections Project (formerly the Judicial Education Project)
  • Election Integrity Project California
  • FreedomWorks’ National Election Protection Initiative
  • True the Vote
  • Turning Point

She writes that “Many experts on democratic governance, however, believe that efforts to upend long-settled election practices are what truly threaten to rip the country apart.”

One of her examples is University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen, who told her, “I’m scared sh*tless.” On new laws to make voting harder, passed by Republican state legislatures including Wisconsin, he added, “It’s not just about voter suppression. What I’m really worried about is election subversion. Election officials are being put in place who will mess with the count.”


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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.