GOP Candidates Discover the Problems With Money in Politics

It's not just Democrats who are critical of the current state of campaign finance. Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz have their own complaints.


"You're going to have money dumped in this election cycle that's going to turn off the American people. There's going to be a need and a movement to try to control the money in politics."

That wouldn't be a revolutionary statement from a Democratic politician. But it's not from a Democratic politician. It's from Senator Lindsey Graham, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful. Graham has some personal reasons for speaking out against big money—he'll struggle to match the top-tier GOP candidates' fundraising—and has voted for campaign-finance laws in the past, but he's not the only one doing so.

As The Washington Post's Matea Gold notes, Chris Christie has been offering a tempered critique of the emerging world of campaign finance in the aftermath of the Citizens United, SpeechNow, and McCutcheon court cases. “I think what is corrupting in this potentially is we don’t know where the money is coming from,” the New Jersey governor said in New Hampshire.

Graham and Christie may come from the more moderate side of the party, but Ted Cruz—who most assuredly does not—also seems to find the whole business distasteful.

“I’ve told my six-year-old daughter, ‘Running for office is real simple: you just surgically disconnect your shame sensor,’” he said. “Because you spend every day asking people for money. You walk up and say, ‘How are you doing, sir? Can I have money? Great to see you, lovely shirt, please give me money.’ That’s what running for office is like.”

But Cruz immediately followed that comment up with a qualification that's essential to the way this debate functions on the right, telling Politico that he thinks that hassle is worth it, since the alternative—limiting contributions—would curtail freedom. Cruz stunned the political world this month with the revelation that a network of four super PACs to support him had already raised $31 million.

These divisions within the Republican Party seem to be the product of a movement to deregulate campaign finance that has achieved stunning victories over the last 15 years. If the movement isn't quite a victim of its own success, it now faces some disarray bred by winning so quickly and completely. Having triumphed, conservatives aren't unified on where to go next.

Starting with the attack on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law in 2003, opponents have won an accelerating series of victories against similar laws. The result has completely changed the world of campaign finance. Citizens United struck down limits on independent expenditures. SpeechNow made it possible for contributions to be largely hidden. Aggregate limits on personal contributions were swept away by McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014. Liberals are generally unified in distaste for these developments, but conservatives are faced with a new set of questions: What happens now? Are there more restrictions to knock down? Are the changes good, or have they gone too far?

For extremely wealthy donors who want to elect candidates and influence issues, their newfound power is a godsend. After spending $92 million on super PACs in 2012, Sheldon Adelson can summon any Republican candidate he wants and has their ears to discuss Israel, his pet issue. The Koch brothers have put together a coalition that intends to spend almost $1 billion in 2016. Some donors complained after McCutcheon that they'd no longer be able to hide behind limits when they didn't want to give, but the overall landscape has clearly shifted toward those writing the checks.

As Cruz suggested, it's less fun for the candidates. Who wants to spend all their time hitting folks up for money—especially if they think they have Big Ideas to solve the country's problems? Even when candidates aren't directly raising money (super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with candidates), they depend on their allies' ability to do the same sort of panhandling. Members of Congress get the shaft, too, spending up to 12 hours a day dialing for dollars. The simple drag of having to do all that seems like a potent reason for candidates to push back. After all, it's not clear that there's much of a grassroots groundswell against the rise of campaign cash, despite the best efforts of activists to produce one.

The polling is a mixed bag. The number of Americans who are tightly focused on money in politics is relatively small, but concern is widespread. A Pew poll in January of voters' top priorities found that only 42 percent thought it should be a top priority for the year—well down the list, tied with the hot-button topic of transportation and just edging scientific research. But even as it fails to rise to the top of most voters' agendas, majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents have voiced concern about the corrupting influence of money in polls, and the public generally supports spending caps.

The candidates who are doing best at fundraising, or for whom super PACs are likely to raise money effectively, are staying tactfully quiet on the issue. Marco Rubio isn't joining those edging toward caps; incidentally, a Florida businessman will reportedly spend as much as $25 million to back him. Jeb Bush, who's gotten off to a strong start with fundraising, isn't talking much about it either.

Hillary Clinton, however, is eager to make her opinion known. Clinton is expected to have little trouble raising money, especially if she has the Democratic field effectively to herself. She seems not to have the same queasiness of about adopting the new techniques of financing campaigns that President Obama displayed in 2012, but she also called last week for a constitutional amendment to create limits or mandate transparency for campaign cash. Her call is unlikely to actually deliver ratification of an amendment, but it is a powerful signaling mechanism, especially to progressives who worry she's too moderate.

At the same time, a forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer has excited the political world with allegations of quid pro quos, in which foreign governments gave to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state, did them favors—essentially alleging bribery in foreign affairs. The Clinton campaign said there's nothing to the allegations.

Democratic and Republican super PACs are already lining up to attack the book or to use it to attack Clinton, respectively. The implication of Schweizer's argument is awkward for the groups poised to pour millions into publicizing its allegations, though. Shadowy organizations funded by multimillionaires, many of which scrupulously cover up their sources of donations, are going to pour huge amounts of money into trying to sway the democratic process—all in an attempt to prove that huge, insufficiently transparent infusions of cash from wealthy donors can corrupt a public servant’s policy decisions. Is this irony lost on the donors and the candidates they back, or does it simply not bother them?