Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer February 22, 2012

Rick Santorum’s emergence as the provisional Republican presidential front-runner has been greeted with rapture by one largely overlooked precinct of American politics: the financial leaders who want to run a fiscally austere, socially moderate third-party candidate in November’s election.

These Wall Street heavyweights had already raised $22 million by the end of last year for Americans Elect — an organization that will nominate its candidate through a process of online voting. The money has gone chiefly to the signature-gathering required to place the eventual nominee on the November ballot.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Where the money has come from is murkier. Like super PACs set up to help the candidacies of President Obama and his Republican challengers, Americans Elect is not obligated to report the identity of its funders. We do know, courtesy of Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, that about 55 people have donated at least $100,000 apiece. We know as well that Americans Elect was established by private-equity executive Peter Ackerman (Elliot’s father), who has stated he’s given the group $5 million. While almost all the other donors remain anonymous, Americans Elect includes on its Web site a “leadership” list, and of the 69 people named who are not the organization’s staffers or consultants, fully 20 either head or hold senior executive positions with financial institutions, chiefly hedge funds or private-equity firms.

The leaders of Americans Elect know what they’d like in a candidate. Maine politico Eliot Cutler, who sits on the group’s board of nine directors, says he wants a ticket “that looks like the Bowles-Simpson Commission in terms of approach — people who reflect my own biases toward social progressivism and fiscal discipline.”

If Mitt Romney manages to squeak through with the GOP nomination, there won’t be much political space that Americans Elect could occupy: Wall Street will already have a candidate of its own. But if Santorum is the GOP nominee, Americans Elect could offer an alternative for moderate Republicans and sundry independents.

This is why it took Americans Elect’s champions about a nanosecond after Santorum’s surge began to start promoting a candidate. The group’s foremost advocate, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, penned a column on Sunday introducing his readers to David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general from 1998 to 2008, and for two years thereafter the head of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an organization established by the billionaire co-founder of the Blackstone Group to preach the gospel of cutting Social Security, Medicare and other government spending.

In his column, Friedman acknowledged that he wasn’t sure that a Walker presidential candidacy would positively affect the outcome of the election, but he stated that he’d “pay good money” to see such a candidate raising his points in the presidential debates. (Those who remember Friedman’s columns on the eve of the Iraq War, expressing doubts about the Bush administration’s ability to wage that war but supporting it nonetheless because it might just make things better, may see a pattern here.)

Left to his own devices, David Walker has yet to make any real impact on American politics, or even on Americans Elect’s membership. The group’s Web site includes a page where members can line up behind political figures, regardless of whether those individuals have demonstrated any interest in Americans Elect. As of Wednesday evening, Ron Paul headed the list with 2,632 supporters; Jon Huntsman was second with 1,356 and Bernie Sanders third with 1,013. Walker came in 19th, with a grand total of 100 supporters.

As that list suggests, the group’s members may have completely different preferences than the organization’s leaders do. But Walker has burst into action. On Monday, he released a statement noting that it was the 20th anniversary of Ross Perot’s becoming a presidential candidate, and he hailed Perot’s role in highlighting fiscal issues. Americans Elect also sent out a press release proclaiming that Walker “emboldens voters to face the critical challenges of our nation.”

How to reconcile Americans Elect’s salute to Walker with the far-flung passions of its online members? First, by curtailing those members’ power: If their first choice in the online balloting to be held later this year doesn’t meet the group’s bipartisan criteria, the board can nullify the nomination, though the nullification can be overturned by a majority vote of the members. Second, Pete Peterson could well become Walker’s Sheldon Adelson — setting up a super PAC to promote Walker’s candidacy.

If the GOP nominates Romney, Wall Street will be sitting pretty. If it nominates Santorum, Americans Elect and, just possibly, Walker, can ride to Wall Street’s rescue.

meyersonh@washpost.com