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Billionaire Auditions Spook Conservatives

Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics. As political editor for Bloomberg News, she directed coverage of the 2012 and 2014 elections. The 2016 race marks her seventh presidential campaign.
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Not all conservatives are thrilled to watch the growing influence of conservative billionaires in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

"There's no doubt there is a schism in the Republican Party today," said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and consultant whose clients include the Tea Party Patriots. "It's a Mars versus Venus thing now."

Last weekend, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Rick Perry and other presidential contenders appeared before the Republican Jewish Coalition at billionaire Sheldon Adelson's glitzy Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. In January, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky were in Palm Springs hoping to charm billionaires David and Charles Koch along with about 400 other wealthy suitors. When not "auditioning" at billionaire cattle calls, the contenders are soliciting wealthy donors by phone and in private meetings.

The high-profile courtships reinforce voter perceptions that Republicans cater to the wealthy, said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. In a February 2014 CNN poll, 69 percent of Americans agreed that "the policies of the Republican Party generally favor the rich." Only 23 percent said they favor the middle class. (For Democrats, the corresponding numbers were 30 and 36 percent.) Currying favor with billionaires risks defeat in 2012, Schlapp said.

Concern about a "billionaires' primary" extends beyond the party's grassroots base. Former Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana told me that the repeated pairings of candidates and billionaires is "not optimal."

Likewise, former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia said, "It's probably not a great image" for the potential presidential nominees to be seen "marching up to a bunch of billionaires." But rather than curtail the billionaire primary Davis said Republicans should neutralize it by criticizing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's connection to mega-donors to her family's foundation. "The antidote is not to disarm," he said. "It's to tag Hillary with the same thing."

The Supreme Court in 2010 paved the way for individuals, corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on politics. Adelson and his wife gave more than $90 million to candidates and committees in the 2012 race. Aides to the Kochs have indicated that they may spend $900 million in the 2016 election supporting Republican candidates and conservative causes. In effect, Adelson, the Kochs and other big spenders can keep a preferred candidate in the race as long as they want, regardless of other political factors.

In a February op-ed piece on the Fox News website, John Pudner, head of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group dedicated to changing campaign finance law, called for a federal tax break for small donors to combat the influence of billionaires. "I’m simply saying that it’s time for a debate about the role of money in politics," Pudner said. "And that debate is already happening -- but right now it’s happening only on the left, and we need the voices of conservatives and others to take part in this debate."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net