Following Donald Trump’s big primary win in New Hampshire, a raft of headlines blared some variation on the following: “GOP establishment stares into the abyss” (Politico), “Trump rout plunges GOP establishment into chaos” (The Hill), and “As Donald Trump Wins, Mainstream GOP Is Left to Muddle On” (The New York Times). The conventional wisdom holds that the current state of the Republican contest—with a racist reality-TV star at the top, followed by widely loathed ideologue Ted Cruz, and then five candidates splitting up the “mainstream” vote—is the worst possible scenario for the party.
That’s true. But the big Republican donors who make up the party’s establishment have nobody but themselves to blame. They can shake their heads over the seething anger in the Republican electorate, but this nasty and never-ending “clown car” primary is a problem of their own creation.
To a degree, the GOP field is shrinking. After getting 4 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina quit the field on Wednesday. Chris Christie suspended his campaign after his 7 percent showing on Tuesday (he’s at 3 percent nationwide). Their departures follow those of Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum in Iowa. What those last four candidates have in common was that they were perilously low on cash—among the recent drop-outs, only Fiorina entered the year with more than $1.3 million in the bank.
But several other unpopular campaigns are still in it. Why? Campaigns that don’t gain traction with GOP voters have historically lacked the resources they need to carry on the fight. But big donors have upended that. Before winning the support of 2.3 percent of voters in the New Hampshire primary, Ben Carson swore that he would “go on with the campaign no matter what happens on Tuesday.” He’s raised a healthy sum from small donors, but would nevertheless be in a cash-poor position if not for $22 million in big-dollar donations and another $14 million his allied Super PACs have raised. He started the year with almost $7 million in cash on hand. John Kasich did well in New Hampshire—a state with an electorate that’s tailor-made for his campaign—but he’s at 3 percent in the national polls and only has a chance to fight it out until the Ohio primary on March 15 because his committees started the year with almost $5 million, just 10 percent of which came from small donors. And of course Jeb Bush has gained little traction in this race, but is in it for the long haul thanks to a mountain of campaign cash.
The fact that most pundits confidently predicted that the front-runner would collapse has offered an incentive for these candidates to stay in the race with the hope of becoming the anti-Trump (and anti-Cruz) candidate. As Nick Confessore reported for The New York Times following the Iowa caucuses, “for the first time in recent history,” candidates that faired poorly in the Hawkeye State “are emerging from the caucuses with enough money to finance a strong offensive in the weeks ahead, across electoral terrain that will vary from famously flinty New Hampshire to conservative, middle-class upstate South Carolina to the post-recession suburbs of Las Vegas.” The past weeks have seen Bush, Kasich, and Rubio—and the Super PACs that support them—spending big money to air ads attacking one another as they battle it out for the “mainstream lane” in this primary.
In another era, the “establishment” might be coalescing around a single candidate, and attacking Trump and Cruz. But there is no single Republican “establishment” today; thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United (and other cases), there are now several establishments—including outsiders who can donate unlimited sums to a candidate’s super PAC—and Cruz wouldn’t be where he is today if not for major donors embracing his combative style and total disregard for any imperative to govern. Through the third quarter of 2015, the biggest donors in the 2016 election cycle weren’t the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, they were the Wilks brothers—evangelical Christian fundamentalists who got rich in the Texas oil business. Farris Wilks told Reuters that he and his brother support Cruz because “he believes in the morality of the free market, in keeping our country safe, and in the right of the unborn not to be killed in their mother’s womb.” They funded a Super PAC backing Cruz to the tune of $15 million. Between his campaign and the 12 super PACs that are backing his candidacy, Cruz raised almost $90 million through the end of last year, around 80 percent of which came from large donors.
Cruz’s campaign and his PACs have spent a fortune getting to this point, and he moves South with around $50 million left in his war chest. Cruz clearly has a constituency, but it’s hard to imagine that he’d be in the position he enjoys now—in second place nationally, with the support of 19 percent of GOP primary voters—if not for the $42 million his Super PACs have raked in from Republican millionaires.
Even with Cruz winning as much support as he has, if the non-Trump, non-Cruz, non-Carson vote (Carson’s also an “outsider”) had coalesced around a single mainstream candidate—say, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush—that person would be nipping at Trump’s heels, with 29 percent of the vote—the total non-Trump, non-Cruz, non-Carson share—to Trump’s 35 percent, and Ted Cruz would be a distant third. And if Cruz had campaigned with fewer resources, and the second-tier candidates hadn’t been attacking one another during the debates and on the airwaves, it’s easy to imagine an orderly primary process with an electable, mainstream Republican leading the pack against Trump’s novelty candidacy.
So it’s true that the GOP is fractured, and is facing a tough, extended primary slog that will bring out its ugliest rhetoric and damage the eventual winner in the general. But keep in mind that what looks like a nightmare scenario for Republican strategists is entirely the result of the big donors whose cash is crucial to the party’s livelihood. And in the end, we may come to see the advantage in campaign financing that the Roberts Court bestowed on the Republican Party as something akin to Frankenstein’s monster, at least at the presidential level.