Why the Republican Base Is Rallying to Defend Every Last Donor

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 2 2014 6:27 PM

The Rich Are Just Like Us

Why the Republican base is being told to defend the wealthiest donors among us.

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All of that colors the conservative reaction to the Udall amendment, but there’s more to it. The first night of the RLC closed with a free-association sermon from Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, whose comments about gays and civil rights to GQ briefly got his show suspended. The network balked only after conservatives, including Sarah Palin, decried the censorship. The specter of a liberal establishment silencing conservatives hovers over every branch of the movement. Social conservatives. Libertarians. Donors.

So there’ll be no sitting by while the Democrats try to demonize donors or limit what they can spend. “They’re friends of mine, the Koch brothers,” said Donald Trump after his own novella-length address to the conference. (David Koch has called Trump a “wonderful guy” who should never run for office.) “I don’t think that attack resonates. I think one of the mistakes Mitt made was that he didn’t want to talk about his success enough. If I were running, I’d be talking about my success.”

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson had actually gotten fairly close to the Kochs, dining with David Koch at the 2012 Republican National Convention and appearing at their donor conferences. “I think someone like David Koch, who’s donated a billion dollars to cancer research, I think someone like Charles Koch and the policies they’re primarily promoting, I think they are educating people on the free enterprise system, which just happens to be the best economic system,” said Johnson after his RLC speech. “It’s the one that’s lifted more people out of poverty than any system in the history of the world. From what I know of the Koch brothers, that is what they’re trying to promote.”

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RLC attendees weren’t exactly focused on defending the Kochs. There were, arguably, better ways to spend time in New Orleans. But when the topic of campaign finance reform came up, when I’d ask whether there needed to be any donation limits, the sentiment was unanimous. Free speech was free speech. At a Saturday morning prayer breakfast, where he was situated at the front of the room, McCutcheon told me he’d been amused by some of the liberal campaigns run against him. “Some of the artwork is really good,” he explained. He could spend what he wanted; they could draw what they wanted.

McCutcheon’s status at the conference got him a prime prayer breakfast seat. He was one chair down from Sen. Ted Cruz, who was giving the main remarks before giving a longer speech to the full conference. A standing-room crowd heard Cruz run through the successes of the Senate’s conservative bloc and heard how the government shutdown, far from backfiring, had exposed the rotten heart of Obamacare.

Then came the pivot. “Democrats in Congress have promised this year that we are going to vote on their proposal to repeal the First Amendment,” said Cruz.

The crowd murmured with disgust.

“I promise you, I’m not making this up,” said Cruz. “Forty-one Democrats have signed on to a constitutional amendment that Chuck Schumer has promised we’re gonna vote on this year that would give Congress plenary authority to regulate political speech. They’ve decided that the rise of the grassroots really is scaring the living daylights out of them. There are politicians who really don’t like it when the pesky voters express their views and exercise their sovereignty.”

Cruz had whittled this line with appearances on conservative talk shows. It was a hit, as he knew it would be.

“It’s interesting,” he continued. “This amendment specifically says that nothing in it will undermine the freedom of the press. So the New York Times is protected. You and me are not. If this amendment passed, Congress would have the authority to tell the NRA you cannot distribute voter guides telling people how politicians are voting on the Second Amendment. If this amendment passed, Congress would tell the Sierra Club you can’t run any ads talking about a candidate’s environmental record.

If this amendment were to pass, Congress would have the authority to tell Right to Life or Planned Parenthood, either one of them, you can’t talk about your views.

If this amendment passed, Congress would have the authority to criminalize bloggers, to criminalize movie-makers.”

Cruz paused. Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author and documentarian who had recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud, was scheduled to speak later in the day.

“You notice how they keep indicting movie-makers?” Cruz said. “Funny how that happens.”

One day later, Cruz would make the same argument in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. He had to, while it was still legal.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.