The Rich Chicken and the Republican Party Egg: Who's Leading Conservative Politics?

As Times' front page on Friday made clear, the Koch brothers' plan is simple: They're building an entire political party outside the legal and practical limitations of the Republican National Committee. 

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As The New York Times front page on Friday made clear, the Koch brothers' plan is simple: They're building an entire political party outside the legal and practical limitations of the Republican National Committee. That they're doing so fairly effectively makes the question of how and when money influences politics ridiculously more complex.

Americans for Prosperity, a group founded and supported by the polarizing Kochs, spent heavily in the special congressional election earlier this month in Florida. AFP "turned the Florida contest into its personal electoral laboratory to fine-tune get-out-the-vote tools and messaging for future elections," the Times' Carl Hulse and Ashley Parker report. In addition to blanketing the district with TV ads — focused heavily on criticizing Obamacare — the group also ran "field," putting staffers on the ground to knock on doors and contact voters. The push in Florida and in Virginia's gubernatorial race last November are "part of the group’s effort to apply the well-honed, data-centric business practices of the Koch brothers, as well as undisclosed donors" to politics.

You'll note that in the immediate wake of the Florida race, won by Republican David Jolly, it was the Republican National Committee that was bragging about its mastery of data and field. The odds were stacked in Jolly's favor in most regards, so it's not clear the extent to which AFP or the RNC made the critical difference. But it is clear that the RNC was quick to step up and take credit, to eagerly hawk its new savvy, in part because it recognizes the institutional threat that AFP poses.

There are advantages that each group has over the other. The RNC can coordinate with candidates, working directly with them (following specific rules), but it is limited in its fundraising and spending. Thanks in part to the Citizens United decision, AFP can spend when and wherever it wants, but can't coordinate with candidates. There's a lot of value to coordination, including relationship building. But there may be more value in simply being able to carpet-bomb opponents. AFP started running ads against possible Democratic candidates last year, in part because it can.

And AFP has been focused on creating successful structures at every level. Last November, The Wire noted AFP's work in state and local races. Hulse and Parker explain it in brief:

The idea is to embed staff members in a community, giving conservative advocacy a permanent local voice through field workers who live in the neighborhood year-round and appreciate the nuances of the local issues. They can also serve as a ready-to-go field organization in future election years and on future issues — not dissimilar from the grass-roots, community-based approach Mr. Obama used successfully in 2008 and 2012.

And, they can identify and foster candidates before they rise to the national level, building relationships that will come in handy when the Kochs (and others) knock on their doors on Capitol Hill.

At The Washington Post, fact-checker Glenn Kessler examines Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's claim that "the single biggest lie in all of politics" is that the Republican Party is the party of the rich. Kessler looks at party registration and popular attitudes toward the parties and how the rich have fared under each president. Ultimately, Cruz earns three Pinocchios, a low score on the site's metric for accuracy.

But the question more essentially is: How does the interplay of the wealthy and the party work? Are Republicans more likely to support policies that favor big business and the wealthy because of campaign contributions or because they share a philosophy? Do Republican voters vote Republican because of or in spite of or regardless of those positions? Do the wealthy back Republicans because they have relationships with them or because of their policies? This is the political chicken-and-egg question.

The answer, as with the chicken, is that it's complicated, and it's complicated in part because of this poorly defined thing called a "Republican." Parties exist as institutions because 1) they served a distinct and eroding political purpose, 2) they were explicit about protecting their power by manipulating campaigns and laws, and 3) as institutional bases of power they were able to maintain and grow power over time to allow them to accomplish #2. (N.B.: These arguments apply to both parties, of course.)

The Republican party maintains loyalty because it offers power and money. If there's another outlet for that, for more of it, there's little reason for conservatives to be loyal solely to the RNC. For example, here's Louisiana Sen. David Vitter as reported by Politico: "I think the Koch brothers are two of the most patriotic Americans. … I’ll be honest with you, God bless the Koch brothers. They’re fighting for our freedom." When's the last time Vitter — or anyone — said such nice things about RNC chair Reince Priebus?

One question remains. Can AFP (and other organizations) build institutional power that can last over time? Or is this a short-lived idea that will be abandoned by the Kochs and those other anonymous donors if it doesn't bear fruit? Priebus' fingers are permanently crossed in the hopes that it's the latter. Time will tell.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.