We hear plenty from progressives about the dangers of the Citizens United decision and the influence of big money on campaigns. However, the reality of the 2016 campaigns has GOP donors lamenting the current structure … or their own choices within it. The Hill’s Jonathan Swan reports on the rising level of buyer’s remorse among big Republican donors who have watched Donald Trump render super-PACs irrelevant, at least for now:
GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s relatively cheap campaign — contrasted with the millions of dollars spent on behalf of Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker and Rick Perry — has left donors, fundraisers and conservative leaders questioning the value of super-PACs, which got a boost from the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed independent groups to raise unlimited cash.
“People are upset about the Citizens United decision; people are upset about all this money flowing into politics, but at the end of the day it has no impact,” said New York financier Anthony Scaramucci, who was a national finance co-chair for Scott Walker’s presidential campaign before moving to raise funds for Bush when Walker quit the race.
“I mean, with the free media, or whatever the term is, when they allow Trump to go on to every TV station in America — if there’s evidence that PACs are so consequential, please explain it to me,” Scaramucci said.
The lack of impact goes across the board, but one candidate in particular will get the most scrutiny. Jeb Bush worked hard to get big-ticket donors on board early as a way to crowd out other potential challengers and to get the GOP to coalesce around his bid. Not only did that fail, but then Trump’s rise made the super-PAC efforts ineffective ever since. And don’t think that the deep-pocketed backers of Bush haven’t noticed it either:
The cautionary tale cited by nearly every donor or fundraiser interviewed on or off the record has been Bush. He has fallen in polls despite the more than $50 million already spent on his behalf by the group Right to Rise, which far outraised every other super-PAC with its mid-year haul of $103 million. …
In conversations over the past six weeks, a number of major Right to Rise donors have privately told The Hill that they are holding on to hope that the political action committee can turn things around.
And, while doubts are mounting, none of the super-PAC’s largest donors interviewed was willing to publicly abandon the group’s leader, Mike Murphy. Murphy has been trying to reassure them that his is a winning strategy and that their six- and seven-figure checks are being judiciously spent.
Judicious? Right to Rise spent big bucks to attack Marco Rubio’s footwear, while their candidate now wants to talk about Rubio’s height. The problem here doesn’t seem to be the super-PAC structure, but the candidate that it serves. And there may well be legitimate criticisms of the strategies pursued by the super-PAC — say, on obsessing over Rubio’s heel selection and ignoring the front-runner — but that’s a separate issue than the choice of candidate. The donors themselves put their money on Bush without ever asking themselves, “Is the electorate clamoring for yet another hereditary ruler?”
As for Trump and his ability to draw earned media, that doesn’t necessarily debunk the potential for super-PACs. He’s been doing that for over thirty years; his gig on The Apprentice came from his celebrity, rather than creating it. It’s a unique feature of this election, and a deliberate strategy by Trump to keep his name and campaign in the headlines. This is unlikely to repeat itself even if other celebrities decide to jump into the race, as there are few who are as adept at manipulating the media as Donald Trump.
Rather than a cautionary tale about super-PACs, this is more another example of a very old lesson: caveat emptor.
Update: Edited one paragraph for greater clarity.