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Don't Let the Koch Brothers Be Kingmakers

Don't Let the Koch Brothers Be Kingmakers

When billionaires handpick our politicians before a single vote is cast, it strips away the fundamental power of We the People to elect our representatives. And in this case, the losers are Republican voters.

Billionaire Charles Koch warned that America is “done for” if conservative mega-donors don’t rally in the 2016 election.

But the cure that Mr. Koch proposes is worse than the disease. When billionaires handpick our politicians before a single vote is cast, it strips away the fundamental power of We the People to elect our representatives. And in this case, the losers are Republican voters.

[sharequote align="center"]But the cure that Mr. Koch proposes is worse than the disease.[/sharequote]

Mr. Koch was speaking in California to an elite group of 450 political donors who have given $100,000 or more to Koch-backed political groups. The Koch brothers and their network have committed to spend $889 million to help elect the next Republican president.

Five Republican presidential contenders — Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina — came to make their pitches to this group of high rollers. While the Koch donor network is not expected to coalesce behind a single candidate, it is “helping elevate a select group” who meet with the favor of this small group of megadonors.

Other candidates, who might appeal to Republican grassroots voters but for whatever reason do not please the Koch network, are not so fortunate.

Take Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. In the 2012 Republican primaries, he won the Iowa caucus and 10 other states, and ultimately came in second against Mitt Romney. He’s an ardent social conservative but an economic populist, with a strong appeal to working class voters that Republicans need in order to win the general election.

(AP) (AP)

But his politics don’t appeal to the Koch network. He’s managed to enlist the support of another wealthy patron, Foster Friess, but Friess doesn’t give at Koch network levels. And because Santorum is languishing in the money race, he’s not considered a “serious” candidate in the presidential race.

Or take Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. He caught the nation’s attention by filibustering President Barack Obama’s CIA nominee over the constitutionality of executive-ordered drone strikes, and he was described just last year as “the most interesting man in politics.” He stands apart from the “big-government conservatism” that defines much of the establishment, and his brand of libertarian politics has fired the enthusiasm of under-30 voters, which the Republican Party desperately needs. Maybe that’s why a Reason poll last year found that he was the leading Republican candidate among millennial voters.

But those voters may not get a chance to vote for him. His candidacy is suffering because he’s “simply not willing to do the stroking and courting that powerful donors expect.” He actually turned down an invitation to speak at the Koch event, preferring to spend his time campaigning with actual voters in Iowa rather than supplicating before the Koch network. And because he’s not willing to kowtow to political sugar daddies, his campaign is struggling.

This is bigger than Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, and the particular problems facing their particular campaigns. This is about the system. The Republican Party is blessed to have a robust field of competitive candidates. But long before candidates compete for votes at the polling booth or the caucus hall, they have to compete for dollars from mega-donors, in what some call the “money primary.” (Candidates who are themselves ultra-wealthy, such as Donald Trump, don’t need to solicit outside money, but a race where candidates need to either be Trump or be friends with Trump is a money primary.) Some will find favor with this yacht set. Others may not be willing to bend their knees and their policies to suit the megadonors’ proclivities, and will find themselves unable to compete in today’s increasingly expensive elections. Yet others—talented politicians with the potential to appeal to both Republican voters and enough crossover or independent voters to win elections, but unwilling to jockey for donations from high rollers—will decide not to run.

The money primary constrains the marketplace of ideas, because by the time voters get to vote, the only “serious” or “credible” candidates are the ones with billionaire support. That’s not the country our Founders fought to establish. The candidate should be chosen on Election Day by the voters, not long beforehand behind closed doors by 450 people who fly on private jets.

Mr. Koch is right to say that America may be “done for,” but he’s saying it for the wrong reason. America will be “done for” if We the People continue to let a small group of ultra-rich individuals co-opt our elections.

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