Why the Republican Base Is Rallying to Defend Every Last Donor

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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.

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the final day of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 31, 2014, in New Orleans.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS—The invitations and accolades never stopped arriving for Shaun McCutcheon. In the two months since he won at the Supreme Court—his victory killed the limits on the aggregate amounts that donors can give in a single election—the Alabama businessman had sat for countless interviews. He’d polished off a memoir. He’d gone to Louisville for Sen. Mitch McConnell’s primary night party, on the personal invitation of the man who might run the Senate next year.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

And on Thursday night, the jet-fueled victory lap took McCutcheon to the Republican Leadership Conference. He’d co-sponsored the annual Southern conservative gathering; conference ID badges were emblazoned with his name. After the attendees found their seats, the affable McCutcheon, who constantly looks as if he’s just been told a happy secret, learned he would be getting a trophy for his defense of the First Amendment. He ambled onstage, next to David Bossie, president of Citizens United and victor in the Obama era’s defining campaign finance case, and was prompted to recap what he’d won.

“Chief Justice John Roberts ruled in my favor,” said McCutcheon.

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Hundreds of Republicans roared with applause.

“It was about your right to spend your money on as many parties, candidates, and committees as you choose in this free country,” said McCutcheon.

More applause.

“It’s about how those who govern should not be the ones who will govern. It’s us the people who should decide.”

That got the loudest applause yet. Bossie, who got to sit next to Sen. John McCain during the trial that shredded campaign finance law (“it was a lot of fun”), warned the crowd that Democrats were going to introduce a constitutional amendment to undo that. Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commissioner and now a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, warned them that the first Senate hearing on this amendment would come as soon as Tuesday.

“I think it is shocking that almost half of the United States Senate would actually be pushing a constitutional amendment that is basically the 2013 version of the Alien and Sedition Acts,” von Spakovsky said, referring to the short-lived 1798 laws that banned “false, scandalous, and malicious” political writing. “The intent of it is to silence conservative voices that could prevent them from getting their progressive utopia in the United States,” he said.

It was a little jarring, this insistence that a roomful of people speaking into microphones and being watched by a traveling press corps were at risk of being “silenced.” The conference’s speakers were actually playing catch-up. Ever since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, Democrats have fumbled for a way to combat wealthy Republican donors. In 2010, they attacked third-party spending on elections (especially that of the Chamber of Commerce, which progressives accused of laundering foreign money) and kicked around the DISCLOSE Act, a bill to prevent anonymous donations.

None of that worked, but Democrats kept slugging. After 2012, they believed they’d made some Republican donors—the Kochs, namely—suffer a bit for their spending. And they had stacks of polling data revealing that voters preferred limiting money in politics to unfettered, secret donor access. The margin for “limits” over “free speech” was as high as 3 to 1. In 2013, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall came up with the amendment that most worried von Spakovsky, one that would give Congress and states power to “regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents.”

Udall’s amendment has no chance of achieving the two-thirds congressional vote it needs to proceed. Republicans know that. They’re approaching it as a teaching moment, a way to inform the base that an attack on donors is an attack on democracy, on them. The Democrats are demonizing job-creators while they’re trying to shut up the right.

“Everybody knows about the IRS targeting conservative groups,” von Spakovsky told me the day after the triumphant panel. “Every American hates and/or fears the IRS.”

The Heritage scholar went a little further. Earlier in the year, he said, he’d joined a debate at Harvard about campaign finance reform. He was supposed to be the heavy, of course.

“I asked all these students in the room: ‘How many of you, before you made your decision in 2012, went to the FEC to see who’d given money to the candidates?’ ” von Spakovsky remembered. “Not a single person raised their hand. ‘How many of you think it’s important to see who gave money?’ Not a single hand. Then I asked, ‘How many of you know your neighbors can log on to the FEC and see what you gave?’ They were shocked. They thought that was a violation of privacy.”

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