WaPo: GOP donors may not want to party like it's 1996 after all

That was the thrust of Nicholas Confessore’s article at the New York Times suggested yesterday. The big-money donors wanted to whittle down the center-right potential nominees in order to get all of the GOP establishment behind a single candidate, and then crowd out any other challengers from the conservative wing of the party. Allahpundit wrote a good analysis of the report, calling it “cynical but smart,” and wondered whether conservatives could do something similar to counter it.


Today, though, the Washington Post’s Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger report that big donors don’t want to jump in early at all — regardless of what candidate is approaching them:

In Florida, allies of former governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio are tussling over many of the same donors. In Texas, bundlers are feeling pulled by Bush, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz. Perry and Cruz are also competing for the backing of wealthy evangelical Christians, as are Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Despite the appeals, which have stepped up in recent weeks, many top donors have committed to being noncommittal, wary of fueling the kind of costly and politically damaging battle that dominated the 2012 primaries. Senior party fundraisers believe that most campaigns will not be able to fully set up their fundraising operations until at least the spring.

A telling sign of the mood can be seen in the attitude of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of the GOP’s biggest donors, who has expressed reluctance about engaging in the early primary fight. Instead, he and his wife, Miriam, are likely to set up their own super PAC to influence 2016 congressional campaigns as well as the White House race.

The hesitancy among the party’s financial patrons about jumping into the White House race right away could hamstring the ability of some candidates to ramp up their campaign operations and quickly break out of a pack of hopefuls that could number as many as two dozen.


That’s about the opposite of what Confessore reported earlier this week. It makes more sense, too, on a couple of levels. On a pragmatic level, why waste money early in the process, after all, on a candidate that may end up flaming out and taking a big investment with him? It’s easier to set up the super-PACs and work a little more subtly from the sidelines, keeping the powder dry until the top-tier candidates actually emerge.

Jen Rubin makes the same point:

The only difference is that — sorry, New York Times — with a field this big and so many big names potentially getting into the race, no one wants to jump in too soon. And, between us, donors are not anxious to start spending money now, when it is of limited utility and we are a long way off from the first primary. The more they give now, the more they wind up spending for the cycle.

Oh, and having money does not mean that much. In 2008, Mitt Romney had the money and the operation. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was broke — and then won the nomination. It is even more true today that no group of donors, even if it wanted to, could collectively “pick” a winner. In the era of billionaire backers, it takes only one deep pocket for some candidates to keep going, as Rick Santorum did in 2012, a very long time. And an upset winner in an early state will generate excitement — and cash.

Let’s hope so. Plenty of conservatives read that Confessore article and though, Oh no, not again. Republicans have had the very bad habit of automatically choosing the “next in line” for presidential nominees, for better or worse. In 1996 in particular, the GOP establishment ignored a significant change in the electorate and coalesced early around Bob Dole — a war hero, an honorable Senator, but a hopeless presidential candidate to run against the younger and charismatic Bill Clinton. Even in 2012, Mitt Romney won largely on the momentum of his 2008 campaign, as well as a lack of solid bench talent ready to compete for the electorate in the Obama era.


That’s not the case in 2016, as I argue in my column for The Week, and the 1996 strategy won’t succeed any more than it did the first time:

Republicans have a number of governors who are ready to run for the highest office, all of whom have solid track records of reform: Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Susana Martinez, Mike Pence, John Kasich, and Nikki Haley. Senators such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have solid bases of support among conservative and libertarian voters as well. They all have the one quality that has emerged as critical in both parties: outsider status, whether that derives from their geography or because they are comfortable challenging establishment orthodoxy. …

The dynamic between outside and inside has been at play in every election of the Obama era. Few recall that the National Republican Senatorial Committee initially recruited Charlie Crist for the 2010 Senate race in Florida rather than allow it to unfold organically, and got burned when Marco Rubio fired up the Tea Party grassroots to destroy Crist (and eventually push him into the Democratic Party). Incumbents have been under threat for the past three cycles thanks to that populist impulse, even as the party has grown more adept at thwarting it.

The lesson is that it is politically dangerous to ignore the rising populist tide. Arguably, Romney lost because he was too closely affiliated with the “next in line” establishment parade. But this time the GOP has other options, which will only offer a refreshing contrast to the Democrats falling in line behind the ne plus ultra of establishment candidates. The GOP’s bench is diverse, seasoned, and skilled. Most importantly, it has its roots outside of loathed Washington, D.C.

And it’s not just dangerous — it’s pusillanimous as well. A wide open primary should not be feared, but embraced as a way for the Republican Party to debate policy, expand philosophy, and refine candidates for higher office. The GOP needs that debate, that refinement, if it plans to compete against Democrats effectively not just in 2016, but in 2018, 2020, and beyond. A rigged game doesn’t do anything to prepare even a “next in line” candidate for a general election in 2016. Voters won’t just hand the presidency to a Republican simply for showing up.


So again, we’d like to hope that the GOP and its donors have learned the lessons about engaging voters and having a productive debate, followed by a wide-open field that produces better candidates more suited for the current electorate rather than yesterday’s. We’ll see.

Update: Nick Confessore responded to my post on Twitter:

I asked him if he minded me adding this to the post. He agreed and elaborated:

I can see that, in which case my point from the column is even more necessary. At any rate, thanks to Nick for responding and engaging.

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