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If Club for Growth hoped to browbeat Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice into backing down from a recent column, the right-wing group’s campaign appears to have fallen flatter than Gov. Scott Walker’s poll numbers. Last week Club for Growth’s Wisconsin chapter issued a blast email calling Bice “a hack” and aiming to stir up a […]

If Club for Growth hoped to browbeat Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice into backing down from a recent column, the right-wing group’s campaign appears to have fallen flatter than Gov. Scott Walker’s poll numbers.

Last week Club for Growth’s Wisconsin chapter issued a blast email calling Bice “a hack” and aiming to stir up a backlash against the investigative columnist. The email was part of the organization’s ongoing campaign to pump up support for the agenda of Walker and legislative Republicans, an effort that also includes buying ads to tout GOP senators facing recall elections in the wake of the controversial Walker bill to strip almost all collective bargaining rights of most public employees.

The trigger was a Bice item quoting an anonymous Green Bay-area businessman who was critical of state Sen. Robert Cowles’ vote for Walker’s bill. Cowles is one of the senators facing a recall vote.

Bice says his source – identified only as “a prominent business leader” from Cowles’ district – relayed a conversation with Cowles in which the Republican senator said he didn’t like the Walker anti-union measure. The source quoted Cowles as saying: “But the governor’s office told us if we didn’t give them our support, they would run a tea party candidate against us.”

Spokespeople for both Cowles and Walker denied the conversation took place.

So Club for Growth decided to see what outrage it could whip up against the columnist who wasn’t content to just report those denials. Headlining its weekly blast email to supporters and others on its mailing list “Hack Journalism Alert,” the group dismissed Bice’s account as “a hearsay story from a single anonymous source with absolutely no backup.”

After all, the group pointed out, “The offices of both Governor Walker and Senator Cowles told Bice that conversation never happened.”

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The CFG email continues:

“So Bice and his paper are protecting the identity of a source whose sole purpose is to ruin the reputations of both Senator Cowles and Governor Walker.  The reason for identifying sources in the first place is to allow the public to judge the veracity of their claims.

“Bice and his editors have forever sacrificed their credibility and integrity to take a cheap shot at the Governor and a state senator who just happens to be running in a heated recall election.

“Call or email Dan Bice” — here the message included a hyperlink that was supposed to launch an email message to Bice, but was miscoded, so that it simply took readers to the paper’s website instead. “Tell him what you think.” The item ended with the columnist’s phone number.

So was Bice’s email box stuffed with apoplectic missives? Was his phone ringing off the hook as Walker loyalists gave him what-for?

Uh, no.

By the end of last week, Bice had logged a mere five calls. “Four were very courteous,” he tells Pressroom. Just three were from critics, while two reported they had no idea how they even got on the group’s email list. Four of the five were regular readers of his column, he said.

And if CFG hoped to ruffle Bice’s feathers with the name-calling, that didn’t seem to work either. Bice confined his own direct comment on the CFG memo to three bland sentences:

 “I’m not interested in getting into a public dispute with the individuals who run Club for Growth in Wisconsin,” Bice says. “I consider Deborah Jordahl and R.J. Johnson experienced and skilled professionals, and they are entitled to their opinion. I stand by what I wrote.”

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(Jordahl and Johnson are CFG-Wisconsin’s principal staffers.)

In his Wednesday radio program, WTMJ-AM 620 talk radio host Charlie Sykes took a similar tack as Club for Growth, suggesting that denials from Cowles and Walker must mean the Bice column was wrong.

But Bice told me that he’d also heard on the record from one Nancy Schultz, an elementary school principal in Green Bay who had written down her recollection of a June 23 conversation with Cowles the day after it took place. In that conversation, the Senator reportedly told her Walker’s collective bargaining measure “was a total overreach” in light of union concessions on health and retirement benefit contributions, but that he didn’t want to buck party leadership by voting against it.

Bice also noted he had heard from “a Green Bay retiree and community activist” and longtime friend of Cowles’ parents. That person, whom Bice declined to name “for reasons I can’t explain to you,” read to Bice a “strongly worded letter” she had written the senator after hearing second hand that he hadn’t opposed a bill after Republicans threatened him with a tea-party opponent. Cowles never responded to the letter.

“Many others have called or written to say they heard or were told the same type of thing, but it was always second- or third-hand information,” Bice says. “None provided me with a first-hand account like Schultz or the business leader I quoted in my column.”

Of course, that response seems unlikely to satisfy the folks who believe that since Walker and Cowles denied the story, it must not be true.

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