If you’re a Republican primary voter, you’re probably feeling pretty good about the presidential primaries. Even if you haven’t yet found the candidate who will make you swoon, one thing you’ve got is choices. By my count, there are currently 10 candidates who are declared or all but certain to run, and another four who will probably run. But while the voters might find this an embarrassment of riches, for the party’s leaders and financiers, it looks like a recipe for trouble. Which is how I interpret this news:
In a Saturday interview on the Larry Kudlow Show, a nationally syndicated radio broadcast, David Koch let it slip that the roughly $900 million that he and his brother, Charles, plan to lavish on the 2016 presidential race could find its way into the hands of more than one GOP contender.
“We are thinking of supporting several Republicans,” David Koch said, adding, “If we’re happy with the policies that these individuals are supporting, we’ll finance their campaigns.”
Koch said the brothers would begin writing checks to individual candidates in “the primary season, winter and next spring.”
Up until now, the Koch brothers hadn’t indicated that they’d be taking a side in the primaries. It almost seemed that they viewed that as the kind of thing amateurs like Sheldon Adelson do, throwing money at some candidate based on overly irrational personal feelings, while they keep focused on the real goal of getting a Republican — any Republican — into the White House. By saying they’re going to support several candidates in the primaries, the Kochs are pledging to accelerate the winnowing process, by which the race’s chaff can be sloughed off and the focus can stay on the serious contenders.
Don’t be fooled by the line about them supporting all the ones whose policies they’re happy with. That’s because there’s almost no disagreement among the candidates, at least on the issues the Kochs care about. All of them would like to see low taxes on the wealthy (most have even advocated a flat tax, a boon to people like the Kochs), a dramatic reduction in regulations that affect corporations and a rollback of the social safety net. Where the Kochs personally disagree with the candidates (as they may on some social issues or on immigration), they disagree with all the candidates, because the candidates’ positions are so similar.
So mark my words: If the Kochs pick out a few candidates to support, it will be the ones they think would be the strongest in a general election and those they think put the best face on the GOP.
And the Kochs aren’t the only ones trying to do this winnowing. Fox News, which always keeps the long-term interests of the Republican Party in mind, recently announced that in the first debate of the season, it will be refusing admittance to all but 10 candidates. The excluded ones will in all likelihood find themselves caught in a vicious cycle where they can’t get coverage because they aren’t being taken seriously, and the can’t get taken seriously because they aren’t getting coverage. Ten is still a large number of candidates, but that first debate will be a key moment in the winnowing process.
So as open as the campaign is, certain key players still have ways to at least try to rein it in. But their power is limited. One result of the newly freewheeling nature of presidential elections is that a rich donor or two can prop up the candidacy of someone with little chance to win the party’s nomination, enabling him or her to stick around and cause trouble months after he or she ought to have departed the race. This year, multiple candidates could have billionaires feeding them the money they need to keep their campaigns active deep into the primary season. If you’re a thoughtful Republican, a primary with this many candidates is a cacophonous mess, full of extremist cranks squabbling with each other and taking progressively nastier potshots at the leaders, one of whom will end up as the nominee. The longer it goes, the more that nominee has to pander to the base and the less time he or she will have to focus on Hillary Clinton.
If the Kochs are ready to put some of their ample resources into the primary campaign, it’s a sign that the enormous size of the primary field is generating some serious concern at the top of the GOP. The question is whether, even with their money, there’s much they can do about it.