Politics

The GOP’s Donor Disease

Candidates serve big givers as concerns of most voters sidelined

“Bush Camp Moves to Ease Donor Angst,” blared a Politico headline.

“Big Donors Seek Larger Roles in Presidential Campaigns,” a New York Times story reported.

Some of the nation’s biggest political donors and “bundlers” are spilling their guts to journalists (albeit off the record) about what they expect from the GOP candidates they are supporting. They now insist on “larger roles in the campaigns” and, as rich people tend to do, are largely getting what they want.

Big givers stay close to their candidates through special apps, conference calls and intimate gatherings. The really big guns are treated to the holy grail of access — the cellphone number of the candidate.

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist who is also a Jeb Bush supporter, was refreshingly candid in summing up the dynamic.

“Donors are demanding a lot these days … (T)hey want answers and they want results, and a lot of them hit the panic button a lot,” she told the New York Times.

As for the rest of you sops who call the main House or Senate switchboards and expect to be heard? You have a better chance of hitting Lotto.

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Herein lies the problem — politicians scramble to curry favor with those who fill their coffers and, in the process, forget they are elected to serve all the people. Though this is nothing new, never before have the priorities of the Donor Class been more in conflict with those of the average American citizen.

For example, many donors who run big global corporations want to streamline immigration amnesty and the admission of foreign workers. But most Republican voters favor more restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration, according to surveys from Gallup and The Polling Co. Many of those same donors want multi-nation trade deals that bind the U.S. over many years, while most voters think they’ve been a raw deal for American workers.

Then there’s the small issue of 62 percent of Republicans feeling betrayed by their own party (Fox News poll). Presumably, most believe politics is rotten to the core and that politicians will say just about anything to get elected. Once in office, it’s back to raising money, back to answering to the folks who wrote the big checks. As for the rest of you sops who call the main House or Senate switchboards and expect to be heard? You have a better chance of hitting Lotto.

The battle for the soul of the GOP is not between two groups of equal size, but between a large group of voters who want major changes and a much smaller group that likes the GOP the way it is.

Given all that we know about how the “system” works, perhaps it’s time to adopt a new posture. Every time an establishment politician criticizes the policies or motives of the Tea Party or “outsider” candidates, we ought to ask: “Is that your idea, or are you simply repeating what your donors told you to say?”

And we should constantly ask: “Are there any differences between the policies you advocate and the policies your donors want?”

Of course, for the well-connected and plugged-in, the system works just fine. A Bush-ite (natch), political operative Austin Barbour understands real constituents are the people writing the checks. His family connections, campaign experience, and his good-old-boy-style interaction with the well-heeled set makes him the ideal conduit between anxious donors and the candidate. “(G)oodness gracious, the least thing I could do is answer whatever questions they had,” he said in an interview with the Times.

Goodness gracious, the average Republican voter who can’t “max out” in campaign giving has questions, too.

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The mainstream media has finally started to realize that not all Republicans are created equal — that there are major differences between the GOP’s establishment and many of its ordinary members. But simply talking about the “establishment” and the “base” gives the misleading impression that the two groups are roughly equal in size.

It’s hard to see how a political party can prosper when a band of wealthy donors repeatedly forces it to take positions unpopular with its membership.

In fact, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, the candidates who seem to have the most support from the establishment (Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Gov. John Kasich) have about 22 percent of the GOP vote. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — three outsiders — have more than 51 percent.

In both the RCP average and a USA Today poll out Thursday, Rubio and Bush are fourth and fifth, behind Trump, Carson, and Fiorina.

If these numbers are accurate, the battle for the soul of the GOP is not between two groups of roughly equal size, but between a large group of voters who want major changes and a much smaller group that likes the GOP very much the way it is. However, the donors have given that smaller group a giant megaphone that allows them to wield much more influence than their numbers merit.

It’s hard to see how a political party can prosper when a band of wealthy donors repeatedly forces it to take positions that are unpopular with its membership. Look at the difficulties an insider like John Boehner had in leading House Republicans. The harder the donors push, the more likely they are to break the GOP.

The time has come for Republican politicians to quit letting others pull their strings and do a better job of representing the voters who put them in office.

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