Gov. Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker uses a cellphone to illustrate a point about health care plans on Sunday during a special session on jobs during a National Governors Association meeting in Washington. 

The thousands of pages of emails and other records released last week after a secret John Doe investigation into Scott Walker’s aides and associates quickly triggered debate about what they mean for the Republican governor’s political future.

Democrats and other Walker critics pounced on the emails, likening them to the scandal swirling around Gov. Chris Christie and his aides over the allegedly politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, known as “Bridgegate.”

Republicans dismissed the document dump as old news, saying those involved who violated the law had already been prosecuted. It is a talking point Walker repeated Sunday when asked about the subject on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” declining to directly address Wallace’s question of whether Walker knew his aides were doing campaign work on public time.

One thing the release made very clear is that from opponents to supporters, liberal groups to pundits, people around the country are paying close attention to Walker. But the John Doe’s lasting political effects for Walker, if any, as he heads for re-election in 2014 and mulls a possible run for president in 2016 remain murky.

“If this is all there is, I just can’t see this being a major problem for Walker,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Based on what has come out so far, this is not going to seriously impede Scott Walker’s re-election or campaign for president, if he chooses to run.”

Sabato ranks Walker at No. 1 on his “Crystal Ball” list of potential GOP presidential contenders for 2016. And he said that, at least from what he has read about the emails so far, he doesn’t see any of the revelations in them dramatically shifting voters’ opinions of Walker.

“To most people, it is not a shock that politics goes on in elected offices,” Sabato said. “If this is all there is, it’s going to fade away.”

Democrats see an opening

Democrats disagree. And they and liberal groups are doing what they can to make sure the emails are thoroughly vetted — and get plenty of attention.

As the documents were released, American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC funded in part by liberal billionaire George Soros, launched a website devoted to the investigation, JohnDoeWalker.com.

“Walker is the latest in a line of Republican governors to see his record marred by scandal, and the parallels between Walker’s John Doe investigation and Chris Christie’s Bridgegate run deep,” Brad Woodhouse, president of American Bridge, wrote in an email sent out within an hour of the Wednesday morning document release. “Walker has claimed ignorance of his staff’s corrupt actions, but countless questions remain.”

The Democratic National Committee weighed in, too, saying the newly released documents raise questions about what Walker knew when it came to county staffers engaging in campaign work on taxpayer time.

The campaign spokesman for Mary Burke, Walker’s Democratic challenger in the governor’s race, declined to comment about the John Doe emails.

All of this attention to the document release shows that Walker has become a major player in the national arena and is facing “heightened scrutiny” as a result, said Charles Franklin, Marquette Law School professor and the school’s poll director.

“It reflects the growing national prominence of Walker as a possible presidential candidate in 2016,” Franklin said. “It shows Democratic and liberal groups are taking him seriously, not just Republicans and conservatives.”

Franklin said that reactions to the John Doe probe typically have split along partisan lines, pointing to a poll he conducted a week before Walker’s 2012 recall election. In that poll, most Republicans said the probe was just politics, while most Democrats said the investigation was something serious.

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Franklin noted that the emails included “some embarrassing things” that no campaign, candidate, or public official would want to be made public. But he also questioned the lasting effects.

“I’m not seeing much that I would say would move public opinion one way or another,” Franklin said.

Melissa Baldauff, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said the emails raise a number of questions that Walker will have to answer in his reelection campaign.

She noted the sheer volume of emails in which Walker is involved in political discussions that include his county and campaign staffs, and asked why Walker was participating rather than writing to tell them this wasn’t acceptable behavior.

“I just don’t think people will believe that he didn’t know anything about this,” she said.

Baldauff added that while this John Doe investigation has concluded, a second John Doe probe is underway involving Walker’s campaign and third-party groups. And she said many of the people who were included in email discussions from the first John Doe are still working on his campaign.

“Does he trust those people not to commit crimes anymore?” she asked.

Smoke but no fire?

Walker campaign spokesman Jonathan Wetzel could not be reached for comment.

But Gene Ulm, a Virginia-based Republican political strategist and pollster, said without any new convictions, these newly released documents won’t hurt Walker.

“It turns out there’s smoke, but no fire,” Ulm said. “This is trying to pass smoke off as fire.”

He said the released emails showed “no grave sins” committed by Walker, adding that after the recall he is already “arguably the most tested governor in America.”

Ulm said he doesn’t think the emails will change many minds when it comes to the governor.

“If you’re in Wisconsin and you don’t have an opinion about Scott Walker already, what rock have you been under?” Ulm said.

He said he noticed the national attention to the emails, but attributed that to Walker’s prominence nationally.

“Scott Walker isn’t just any governor,” Ulm said.

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