What do you do if you're a loyal Republican who, like three fifths of George W. Bush's donors, has given $2,000 to the President's re-election campaign—the maximum that the law allows? If you're among a growing number of clever conservatives, determined to bleed votes from John Kerry at any price, you write a check to Ralph Nader. Who better to throw a close election to your man than the guy who did so last time around? If Machiavelli had had to contend with campaign-finance laws, this is a tactic he might have devised.
Nader himself claims that his candidacy will attract angry conservatives. That description, however, doesn't fit the small but distinguished group of Republicans who have given him money; most had already voted for Bush with their checkbooks, donating thousands of dollars to the President and the Republican Party. "Nader would probably deny it," says Larry Noble, the director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks money in politics, "but these people are obviously supporting him to undermine Kerry." According to data collected by the center, Nader's most prominent Republican backer is the billionaire Richard J. Egan, a Bush "Ranger" and recently the ambassador to Ireland, who has so far bundled more than $200,000 for the President's re-election campaign. Over the past year Egan and his wife have given $35,000 to the Republican National Committee and thousands more to the party's congressional candidates—so Egan's primary goal in donating $2,000 to Nader was probably not a return to Dublin as Nader's ambassador.
Another prominent Nader Republican is the conservative comedian and game-show host Ben Stein. His purposes, too, seem clear. In February the Bush campaign was forced to issue Stein a refund check after his donations exceeded the legal limit. Spotting an alternative, Stein sent Nader $1,000.
Most conspicuous of late are members of the Club for Growth, a conservative organization that in its zeal for smaller government and lower taxes often targets moderate Republicans. Jeff Yass, an investment-firm principal who has donated $10,000 to the club since December, has also given $1,000 to Nader. Another investment pro, Roger Hoffman, has given $500 to Nader, along with $4,500 to the Club for Growth and $2,000 each to Bush and Representative Pat Toomey (a conservative, championed by the club, who challenged the moderate Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Republican primary and lost). Lest there still be doubt about Hoffman's agenda, his gift to Nader came two weeks after he made a donation to Americans for a Republican Majority. (As for the club's president, Stephen Moore, he expressed his delight over Bush's victory in 2000 by thanking Nader on CNN for running in that election.)
Democrats are catching on, and they aren't happy. Earlier this summer the chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party complained—though he offered no proof—that a Republican consultant had funded a signature drive to put Nader on the Arizona ballot this fall. But there is little the Democrats can do. For the first time in memory a group of donors is backing a candidate in hopes not that he'll win but merely that he'll fare well enough to make someone else lose.