The conventional wisdom in the years since the Supreme Court gave its imprimatur to more money from more sources in politics is this:
A kind of arms race to amass the biggest campaign chest and more support from outside and officially unconnected super PACs is now the norm. Candidates have to engage to scare off less-fundraising-talented competition and gear up for the election to come. And they have to do this all while developing and going public with an actual policy platform. That platform has to appeal to potential big-money donors. But it also can't repel other voters. The former may help to buy ads, scare off and tarnish the competition. But the latter deliver the votes essential to a win, and their smaller donations can make a candidate appear principled, rather than bought.
But sources told the Wall Street Journal something interesting this week about money in politics. The sources helped it track down the single largest donor — so far — to a super PAC backing former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Right to Rise. Bush is one of nearly 20 people seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
And what the paper found was kind of surprising.
First, the single largest donor to Right to Rise, Mike Fernandez, didn't hand over a check for a sum that seems obtainable only though some form of global dominion. Fernandez wrote a check for $3 million. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but nowhere near the all-time-record-setting $92 million that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave to various super PACs during the 2012 election. It's also only approaching the neighborhood of the $10 million that a single donor, billionaire auto dealer Norman Braman, is expected to give in support of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in his 2016 GOP presidential bid.
Second, Fernandez, a Miami-area businessman who runs a health-care industry-focused private equity firm, doesn't agree with Bush on at least two issues that have already come up in the 2016 campaign.
Many health-care executives across the country — including in deeply red states — have been generally if not vocally supportive of the Affordable Care Act. That support includes the Medicaid expansion that has been rejected by some Republican-controlled state governments.
That's the feature of so-called Obamacare that encourages states to expand their Medicaid program to cover more people — not just the poor and very seriously ill, but also the near poor — and let the federal government pick up the tab for a few years. After three years, states that do so must cover 10 percent of the cost of this larger Medicaid program. The Supreme Court dealt this feature of Obamacare a blow in June 2012 by declaring that states could opt out.
And so far, nearly half of all states, most of them red and led by Republican governors, have done just that. That's left 4.2 million people who could be insured without health care coverage, according to a White House analysis in June.
Some of the governors who have taken this path say that they have done so because of a deep philosophical objection to bigger government or more government involvement in health care. Most have also pointed to fiscal concerns. They are being asked to agree now to pick up 10 percent of a future bill with a total that remains unknowable.
But health-care executives — including Fernandez — have said in no uncertain terms that the Medicaid expansion is necessary. It gives poor people currently getting only their critical needs met in a very expensive way in the nation's emergency rooms access to lower cost and preventive care. And reducing the number of people who arrive in emergency rooms, very sick, uninsured and unable to pay, is also, of course, good for their companies' balance sheets.
In April, Fernandez went a step further in describing a decision by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to forgo the Medicaid expansion as wrong and damaging to both the poor and health-care companies.
Bush opposes the Medicaid expansion. He has reportedly encouraged other Republicans to do the same, in private. But he told a group gathered in Tallahassee in April that some sort of compromise around the expansion is needed, the Miami Herald reported. A spokesman later clarified that comment, saying Bush opposes the expansion and favors an overhaul of Medicaid.
Fernandez, a Cuban American who fled Cuba with his family following Castro's takeover, is also a vocal and on-the-record supporter of Obama's move toward normalizing relations with Cuba.
Bush is not. Softening sanctions against Cuba strengthens the Castro regime, Bush said this month.
In an op-ed published by the Miami Herald this month, Fernandez explained his position this way:
Cuban Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba's isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy....Unfortunately, those of us born on the island — and in partnership with U.S. policies — provided the strategic scapegoat...that allowed the Cuban government to blame the embargo and Washington for all its failures.
And there is some evidence that Cuban American support for normalizing relations with Cuba is growing, just as Fernandez implied. The Republican party's anti-Castro stance helped the party win the Cuban American vote — centered mostly in the very important swing state of Florida — in every election since Castro came to power. Then, in 2012, Obama narrowly lost the Cuban American vote in Florida. That's noteworthy because Obama had already made moves toward softening the Cuban embargo during his first term.
Fernandez told the Wall Street Journal that he doesn't plan to ask Bush to adopt any particular positions. He said he supports the pro-Bush Right to Rise super PAC because Bush "has the right values."
It's early days yet. Very early. Bigger donors may and probably will come along. Bush or Fernandez could, theoretically, shift their respective positions on one or both issues. But for now, what we have is a case of a wealthy businessman giving money the way he chooses and a candidate charting a pretty different course.