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.