Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thanked the crowd of potential 2016 Republican presidential caucus attendees at Saturday’s “Iowa Freedom Summit” for praying for him when he was taking away the collective-bargaining rights of teachers and snowplow drivers and custodians in their neighboring state.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz built his campaign list by telling the crowd of conservative believers to text the word “Constitution” to a cellphone number associated with his campaign.
Dr. Ben Carson got heads spinning with his immigration calculus: “There wouldn’t be people coming here if there wasn’t a magnet… you have to reverse the polarity of that magnet.”
And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trumped Carson by explaining that he’s not just bothered by people coming to the United States without proper documentation. “We also have a problem with legal immigration,” declared the guy who won the last round of Republican caucuses in Iowa.
So it went at Saturday’s cursory visit with actual voters by at least ten of the all-but-announced candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who are not topping the polls in Iowa—or across a country where Republicans continue to long nostalgically for Mitt Romney or another Bush. It was all good theater, but nothing more.
Everyone knew the real action wasn’t in Des Moines on Saturday.
It was in Palm Springs on Sunday.
Yes, Palm Springs in California—which, it should be noted, is not the first-caucus state or the first-primary state or the first-anything state on the 2016 Republican calendar.
Why? It was to Palm Springs that Walker, Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio traveled Sunday to bow and scrape before brothers Charles and David Koch — and their network of very rich conservative donors. Rubio set the tone for the session by announcing to the assembled billionaires and lesser millionaires that he had no taste for any of the “anti-business rhetoric” coming out of Washington these days.
The Kochs hold their annual winter gathering of oligarchs at a swank resort that is about as far from Iowa as you can get, yet invited presidential prospects are more than willing to fly into the warm embrace of the billionaire class. That’s because, while the Kochs are important, the Palm Springs meeting is about a lot more than brothers Charles and David — especially now. One of two yearly events at which the wealthiest conservatives from across the country come together to meet with rising right-wing “stars,” this year’s winter gathering was held as the 2016 Republican race is rapidly picking up steam.
According to The New York Times, “The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history.” That $900 million figure is more than the combined spending of the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2012. So it is the kind of number that gets the attention of any presidential contender, and especially of contenders who are still be a little lacking in the national stature and campaign accounting departments.
If a second-string Republican contender such as Walker or Rubio were to make a big impression with the assembled donors, that candidate could end up with the money power to compete with the fund-raising apparatus of likely leaders in the race such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. Everyone knows the new math of American politics, which puts “the money primary” ahead of any contests involving actual voters. So invitations to Palm Springs were not just accepted — they were coveted.
“Americans used to think Iowa and New Hampshire held the first caucus and primary in the nation every four years. Not anymore,”explains Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.“Now the ‘Koch brothers primary’ goes first to determine who wins the blessing and financial backing of the billionaire class. This is truly sad and shows us how far Citizens United has gone to undermine American democracy.”
Sanders was referencing the five-year-old US Supreme Court ruling that struck down barriers to corporate spending to buy elections—one of a series of decisions that have dramatically increased the influence of not just of corporations but of billionaires like the Koch brothers.
On Wednesday, Sanders introduced a constitutional amendment that would undo the High Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and a host of other rulings that ushered in an era of billionaire-defined presidential campaigns.
“People across the political spectrum are demanding that billionaires not be able to buy American democracy,” says Sanders, noting that sixteen states and more than 600 communities have called on Congress to begin the process of amending the Constitution to say that money is not speech, corporations are not people and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, has been encouraged to seek the presidency in 2016.
Sanders is still in the process of deciding whether to run—and how. Though he has run all of his US House and Senate campaigns as an independent, the Vermonter might enter the Democratic primaries as a challenger to presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders will not, however, be entering “the Koch brothers primary.”
More importantly, he is challenging “the money primary” mentality that has made the Kochs and their kind outsized players in American politics.