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

Election '16

In Florida, almost 300,000 fewer Republicans turned out for the GOP primary than showed up in 2008, despite the fact that they're supposedly flush with enthusiasm over the prospect of defeating a black Democrat with a funny name whose presidency they deem illegitimate. They broke big for Romney, but according to the exit polls, 40 percent of them wished they had another candidate to support. In Nevada, turnout was down by 25 percent compared to four years ago, and the trend continued in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday.

That the Republican base is unhappy with the field this year is hardly news. But while conservative bloggers and talk-radio hosts rail against the “establishment,” there has been notably little criticism of the very real “elites” – wealthy donors – shaping this race ahead of an unprecedented flood of campaign dollars courtesy of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It may be that they're so ideologically predisposed to seeing the wealthy as virtuous “job creators” that it simply doesn't bother them that a small handful of very deep-pocketed donors have helped bring them a race that now essentially boils down to a choice between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

According to Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet's politics editor, "In the early phases of a presidential campaign, it makes more sense that individual donors will loom larger than institutional donors, because the candidates are more accessible to would-be donors and their struggle for the nomination is more compelling to the people who know them best."

The early money in this cycle has come from a small pool of very large individual donations, much of it funneled through the candidates' super-PACs – which are ostensibly independent, but are in fact headed by the candidates' former staffers. And in an election cycle that will see an unprecedented torrent of campaign dollars, some candidates who failed to line up their sugar-daddies early decided not to compete.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, pro-Romney PACs raised more than $30 million by the end of last year. Ryan Reilly of Talking-Points Memo did an analysis of PAC dollars, and found that just 58 donors, each contributing upward of $100,000, accounted for 82 percent of pro-Romney PACs' haul in the second half of last year.

Donors kicking in a hundred grand or more have provided the vast majority of all the GOP campaigns' “independent” money in this cycle. As Reilly noted:

Rick Perry’s Make Us Great Again came in at 86.59 percent; Jon Huntsman’s Our Destiny PAC at 87.19 percent; Newt Gingrich’s Winning Our Future at 96.14 percent; and Ron Paul’s Endorse Liberty at 88.23 percent. Rick Santorum’s Red White and Blue Fund came in with the lowest percentage of dollars from donors who gave in the six figures at 79.59 percent.

Romney, despite his perceived apostasy on issues like healthcare reform and believing the scientific consensus about climate change, is where he is today largely because he began this election cycle with a distinct cash advantage, and with the help of his allied super-PAC, has since dumped massive truckloads of dollars into negative ad campaigns when he's needed a win.

Although Gingrich came into Florida riding a double-digit advantage in the polls following his South Carolina victory, Romney's camp outspent Gingrich's by a 4-1 margin – shelling out $15.9 million to Gingrich's $4 million in a costly television market.

From as far back as 2009, Romney has led the GOP pack in fundraising, often by a significant margin. And his position is obviously not a result of his appeal to conservatives. As the Washington Postreported, Romney's campaign has been fueled by a “heavy reliance on a small group of millionaires and billionaires for financial support.” The Post continues:

Some of Romney’s biggest supporters include executives at Bain Capital, his former firm; bankers at Goldman Sachs; and a hedge fund mogul who made billions betting on the housing crash.

Ten donors to Restore Our Future gave $1 million to the group last year and another gave $2 million, accounting for 40 percent of the group’s $30 million in donations. The group’s treasurer declined to comment.

Of course, Gingrich wouldn't be in this race – ridiculously claiming to be the candidate of the people – if not for a huge infusion of cash from a right-wing billionaire with some peculiar views of the world, views Gingrich has eagerly embraced. After lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sheldon Adelson, a Vegas casino magnate, forked over $5 million to Gingrich's Winning Our Future super-PAC to fund his victorious campaign in South Carolina, bringing his total this year to $10 million, according to the Washington Post. Adelson's family donated half of the fund's take last year.

Adelson's two passions are breaking unions and pushing a hard-line, fringe view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Adelson, who has said he regrets serving in the U.S. military rather than the Israeli Defense Force, opposes a two-state solution to the conflict. According to the Atlantic, he “donated a posh new headquarters to AIPAC, the Israel lobby in Washington, though he reportedly feuded with the organization over activities he saw as unduly pro-Palestinian,” and started a free daily newspaper known for its relentless drumbeat of support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians. The paper, Israel Hayom, has been called "the Fox News of Israel."

As a result of Adelson's largesse, Gingrich has radically re-jiggered his own views. Gingrich long supported a two-state solution, but as the New York Timesreported in December, he “suggested that he might break with it, calling Palestinians an “invented” people and the current stalled peace process “delusional.” During a fiery non-concession speech following his loss in the Florida primary in which Gingrich threw all manner of red meat to his supporters – talking about teleprompters and White House czars – Gingrich added another promise: on the first day in office, he said, he'd issue an executive order establishing a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. It was hardly a populist message; most voters probably don't have a clue that hard-right Israel-firsters like Adelson have long harbored a desire for such a move.

Ron Paul remains in the race for one reason: his devoted followers continue to provide him cash in small increments that allows him to continue in the race despite the fact that the deep-pockets in the GOP want nothing to do with him. While that's good news for his fans, it doesn't serve the GOP base very well. In a December Gallup poll, 62 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said Paul wasn't an “acceptable” nominee – a number topping all of the other candidates, including Cain, Bachmann and Huntsman, who were then still in the race.

Santorum came into this weel's primaries clinging to life thanks in part to two donors who gave a combined $600,000 to his super-PAC -- just a little less than his campaign raised in the second half of last year.  The New York Times noted that "his PAC's leading benefactor, the mutual fund executive Foster Friess, was standing directly behind Mr. Santorum as he gave his victory speech" on Tuesday. Santorum's official campaign war-chest had only $190,000 cash on hand at the end of 2011. 

In all likelihood, after much grumbling from the right, and perhaps some protest votes that will get the media excited for a spell, Mitt Romney will be the nominee this November. The next round of primaries, culminating on March 6 with11 contests on Super-Tuesday, will be more of a national campaign, and his cash and organizational advantages should serve him well.

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 Journalnoted 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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