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How a Few Über-Wealthy Donors Helped Buy Republicans a Presidential Field They Hate

In the era of Citizens United, early money from deep-pocketed donors played a major role in shaping the GOP field.

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But to understand how big donors have shaped the contours of this battle, one has to look back to the early months of 2011, long before the first votes were cast in the Iowa Caucuses. While it would be wrong to suggest that fundraising was the only criterion potential GOP candidates rely on when deciding whether or not to run (it is very hard to unseat an incumbent who won the White House from the other party), it's also true that early in the process, Romney's distinct cash advantage, combined with his own unparalleled wealth, helped scare away potential rivals, including many potential candidates who were regarded as better able to unite the disparate factions of the Republican coalition.

In 2010, two years before the election, Mitt Romney raised $4.7 million for his federal PAC, topping the hauls of Mike Huckabbee – who had trouble gaining traction with GOP donors – and Tim Pawlenty combined. (Gingrich's PAC raised over $13 million, but spent a good chunk of that on the 2010 midterms.) In 2009, Romney raised $2.9 million.

South Dakota senator John Thune was supposed to be the ideal candidate – handsome, right-wing enough for the Tea Party base but also sane enough to compete in the general election. DNC executive director Jennifer O'Malley Dillon told Sam Stein, “John Thune is somebody that I have nightmares about." He came into 2010 sitting on $7.4 million, but by early 2011, Politico reported that his fundraising had “slown” in the latter part of 2010, as his campaign committee brought in “less than half of the more than $210,000 Mitt Romney raised in December.” Two weeks after that report, Thune announced that he would stay out of the race.

Last May, Romney “raised $10.25 million” in a single day “after bringing together his network of wealthy donors to dial for dollars,” according to the Washington Post. “Romney’s team hoped the hefty one-day total would show his strength in the emerging field,” and it appeared to do just that. Less than a week later, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, another candidate who was said to be able to unite Tea Partiers, the religious right and the Wall Street wing behind him, dropped out of the race.

When Daniels announced that he wouldn't run, the Wall Street Journal noted that “the bulk of the uncommitted Republican donors [will] now choose a side... and many who were waiting for Mr. Daniels' decision are likely to go to [Tim] Pawlenty, another Midwesterner who, as governor, waged high-profile fights over state spending.”

But that didn't happen. After a disappointing third-place finish in the Ames straw-poll, Pawlenty announced that while he'd “had some success raising money,” he “needed to continue that” and his campaign "didn't get the kind of traction or lift that we needed and hoped for coming into the and out of the Ames straw poll.”

“If we didn't do well in Ames,” said Pawlenty, “we weren't going to have the fuel to keep the car going down the road."

Again, it would be wrong to suggest that Romney's impressive campaign war-chest was the only thing that narrowed the field, but it would be equally naïve to believe that the massive war-chest Mitt Romney accumulated from a handful of fat-cat Wall Street donors wasn't a major factor in his erstwhile rivals' decision to clear the field.

So while conservative activists howl at the moon about a nebulous Republican “establishment” and the liberal media forcing their darlings from the race, they'd be better served directing their ire at the small handful of deep-pocketed Wall Street donors (and a casino billionaire with notably liberal social views but a fringey hard-line on Israel) who are actually responsible for giving them this clown-car of a GOP field.

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