The Rich Are Just Like Us

Why the Republican base is being told to defend the wealthiest donors among us.

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the final day of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 31, 2014, in New Orleans.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS—The invitations and accolades never stopped arriving for Shaun McCutcheon. In the two months since he won at the Supreme Court—his victory killed the limits on the aggregate amounts that donors can give in a single election—the Alabama businessman had sat for countless interviews. He’d polished off a memoir. He’d gone to Louisville for Sen. Mitch McConnell’s primary night party, on the personal invitation of the man who might run the Senate next year.

And on Thursday night, the jet-fueled victory lap took McCutcheon to the Republican Leadership Conference. He’d co-sponsored the annual Southern conservative gathering; conference ID badges were emblazoned with his name. After the attendees found their seats, the affable McCutcheon, who constantly looks as if he’s just been told a happy secret, learned he would be getting a trophy for his defense of the First Amendment. He ambled onstage, next to David Bossie, president of Citizens United and victor in the Obama era’s defining campaign finance case, and was prompted to recap what he’d won.

“Chief Justice John Roberts ruled in my favor,” said McCutcheon.

Hundreds of Republicans roared with applause.

“It was about your right to spend your money on as many parties, candidates, and committees as you choose in this free country,” said McCutcheon.

More applause.

“It’s about how those who govern should not be the ones who will govern. It’s us the people who should decide.”

That got the loudest applause yet. Bossie, who got to sit next to Sen. John McCain during the trial that shredded campaign finance law (“it was a lot of fun”), warned the crowd that Democrats were going to introduce a constitutional amendment to undo that. Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commissioner and now a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, warned them that the first Senate hearing on this amendment would come as soon as Tuesday.

“I think it is shocking that almost half of the United States Senate would actually be pushing a constitutional amendment that is basically the 2013 version of the Alien and Sedition Acts,” von Spakovsky said, referring to the short-lived 1798 laws that banned “false, scandalous, and malicious” political writing. “The intent of it is to silence conservative voices that could prevent them from getting their progressive utopia in the United States,” he said.

It was a little jarring, this insistence that a roomful of people speaking into microphones and being watched by a traveling press corps were at risk of being “silenced.” The conference’s speakers were actually playing catch-up. Ever since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, Democrats have fumbled for a way to combat wealthy Republican donors. In 2010, they attacked third-party spending on elections (especially that of the Chamber of Commerce, which progressives accused of laundering foreign money) and kicked around the DISCLOSE Act, a bill to prevent anonymous donations.

None of that worked, but Democrats kept slugging. After 2012, they believed they’d made some Republican donors—the Kochs, namely—suffer a bit for their spending. And they had stacks of polling data revealing that voters preferred limiting money in politics to unfettered, secret donor access. The margin for “limits” over “free speech” was as high as 3 to 1. In 2013, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall came up with the amendment that most worried von Spakovsky, one that would give Congress and states power to “regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents.”

Udall’s amendment has no chance of achieving the two-thirds congressional vote it needs to proceed. Republicans know that. They’re approaching it as a teaching moment, a way to inform the base that an attack on donors is an attack on democracy, on them. The Democrats are demonizing job-creators while they’re trying to shut up the right.

“Everybody knows about the IRS targeting conservative groups,” von Spakovsky told me the day after the triumphant panel. “Every American hates and/or fears the IRS.”

The Heritage scholar went a little further. Earlier in the year, he said, he’d joined a debate at Harvard about campaign finance reform. He was supposed to be the heavy, of course.

“I asked all these students in the room: ‘How many of you, before you made your decision in 2012, went to the FEC to see who’d given money to the candidates?’ ” von Spakovsky remembered. “Not a single person raised their hand. ‘How many of you think it’s important to see who gave money?’ Not a single hand. Then I asked, ‘How many of you know your neighbors can log on to the FEC and see what you gave?’ They were shocked. They thought that was a violation of privacy.”

All of that colors the conservative reaction to the Udall amendment, but there’s more to it. The first night of the RLC closed with a free-association sermon from Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, whose comments about gays and civil rights to GQ briefly got his show suspended. The network balked only after conservatives, including Sarah Palin, decried the censorship. The specter of a liberal establishment silencing conservatives hovers over every branch of the movement. Social conservatives. Libertarians. Donors.

So there’ll be no sitting by while the Democrats try to demonize donors or limit what they can spend. “They’re friends of mine, the Koch brothers,” said Donald Trump after his own novella-length address to the conference. (David Koch has called Trump a “wonderful guy” who should never run for office.) “I don’t think that attack resonates. I think one of the mistakes Mitt made was that he didn’t want to talk about his success enough. If I were running, I’d be talking about my success.”

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson had actually gotten fairly close to the Kochs, dining with David Koch at the 2012 Republican National Convention and appearing at their donor conferences. “I think someone like David Koch, who’s donated a billion dollars to cancer research, I think someone like Charles Koch and the policies they’re primarily promoting, I think they are educating people on the free enterprise system, which just happens to be the best economic system,” said Johnson after his RLC speech. “It’s the one that’s lifted more people out of poverty than any system in the history of the world. From what I know of the Koch brothers, that is what they’re trying to promote.”

RLC attendees weren’t exactly focused on defending the Kochs. There were, arguably, better ways to spend time in New Orleans. But when the topic of campaign finance reform came up, when I’d ask whether there needed to be any donation limits, the sentiment was unanimous. Free speech was free speech. At a Saturday morning prayer breakfast, where he was situated at the front of the room, McCutcheon told me he’d been amused by some of the liberal campaigns run against him. “Some of the artwork is really good,” he explained. He could spend what he wanted; they could draw what they wanted.

McCutcheon’s status at the conference got him a prime prayer breakfast seat. He was one chair down from Sen. Ted Cruz, who was giving the main remarks before giving a longer speech to the full conference. A standing-room crowd heard Cruz run through the successes of the Senate’s conservative bloc and heard how the government shutdown, far from backfiring, had exposed the rotten heart of Obamacare.

Then came the pivot. “Democrats in Congress have promised this year that we are going to vote on their proposal to repeal the First Amendment,” said Cruz.

The crowd murmured with disgust.

“I promise you, I’m not making this up,” said Cruz. “Forty-one Democrats have signed on to a constitutional amendment that Chuck Schumer has promised we’re gonna vote on this year that would give Congress plenary authority to regulate political speech. They’ve decided that the rise of the grassroots really is scaring the living daylights out of them. There are politicians who really don’t like it when the pesky voters express their views and exercise their sovereignty.”

Cruz had whittled this line with appearances on conservative talk shows. It was a hit, as he knew it would be.

“It’s interesting,” he continued. “This amendment specifically says that nothing in it will undermine the freedom of the press. So the New York Times is protected. You and me are not. If this amendment passed, Congress would have the authority to tell the NRA you cannot distribute voter guides telling people how politicians are voting on the Second Amendment. If this amendment passed, Congress would tell the Sierra Club you can’t run any ads talking about a candidate’s environmental record.

If this amendment were to pass, Congress would have the authority to tell Right to Life or Planned Parenthood, either one of them, you can’t talk about your views.

If this amendment passed, Congress would have the authority to criminalize bloggers, to criminalize movie-makers.”

Cruz paused. Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author and documentarian who had recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud, was scheduled to speak later in the day.

“You notice how they keep indicting movie-makers?” Cruz said. “Funny how that happens.”

One day later, Cruz would make the same argument in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. He had to, while it was still legal.