Be­fore pri­mary sea­son, a race for the gold

GOP pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls jockey for mega-donors’ sup­port, which can keep them run­ning far longer.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mascaro and Noah Bierman

WASH­ING­TON — Not many peo­ple can prompt New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie to apol­o­gize for his word choices or get for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to dis­tance him­self from a fam­ily loy­al­ist.

But Shel­don Adel­son, the bil­lion­aire casino mag­nate, has done both.

The oc­to­ge­nar­ian’s power is in his money — and in his demon­strated will­ing­ness to spend it freely to make or break po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. He is among a grow­ing, but still elite, group of very big-dollar donors who can do­nate enough to keep an en­tire pres­i­den­tial cam­paign vi­able, even in the face of voter re­jec­tion.

Com­pe­ti­tion for the high rollers is so fierce among this year’s un­usu­ally large Repub­li­can field that it has cre­ated a race within the race: the wealthy donors pri­mary, a model that has eclipsed the tra­di­tional pres­i­den­tial cam­paign struc­ture. Now, pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls vie for the back­ing of mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires long be­fore a pri­mary vote is cast — and that money and sup­port will em­power them to stay in the race fur­ther into pri­mary sea­son, per­haps right up to the na­tional con­ven­tion.

It may as well be called the Adel­son Pri­mary — not to be con­fused with the Koch Broth­ers Pri­mary, the Nor­man Bra­man Cau­cus or the Larry El­li­son Event. The in­dus­tri­al­ist broth­ers, the south Florida car dealer and the tech en­tre­pre­neur, re­spec­tively, have all but guar­an­teed big pay­offs to one or more can­di­dates.

“The race for the bil­lion­aires — it’s changed ev­ery­thing,” said Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.), who an­nounced his own pres­i­den­tial bid last week in a still­grow­ing field.

In pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, be­fore the age of the mega-donor, “money tended to track re­sults,” said

Tom Rath, a long­time Repub­li­can strate­gist in the early pri­mary state of New Hamp­shire. A victory or a strong show­ing in an early pri­mary or cau­cus would in­di­cate le­git­i­macy, drawing donors and me­dia at­ten­tion, he said.

Then, in 2012, Adel­son spent $15 mil­lion through a “su­per PAC” to keep for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich in the race for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent long af­ter other back­ers and vot­ers had moved on. Such po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age was novel then, as the im­pli­ca­tions of rapidly weak­ened en­force­ment of cam­paign fi­nance rules were still be­ing ex­plored.

Now, big-money back­ers are al­most re­quired for po­lit­i­cal sur­vival. This year, nearly ev­ery can­di­date in the Repub­li­can field — which could ex­ceed 20 peo­ple — is seek­ing a pa­tron. And they have shown lit­tle shame in grov­el­ing.

“Send some my way!” said Gra­ham, only partly in jest. For his own long-shot bid, Gra­ham drew the back­ing of bil­lion­aire in­vestor Ron­ald Perel­man.

Can­di­dates have been reg­u­larly parad­ing in front of Adel­son, of­ten at fo­rums for small groups of like­minded donors at one of his Las Ve­gas re­sorts.

Christie apol­o­gized to Adel­son af­ter re­fer­ring dur­ing one of those meet­ings to the “oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries” — a com­monly used term for the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but one that con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers of Is­rael like Adel­son ab­hor.

Like­wise, Jeb Bush moved to dis­tance him­self from a long­time fam­ily friend, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III, who had crit­i­cized Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu.

Adel­son has yet to pick a can­di­date this year. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won pos­i­tive re­views from at­ten­dees at one of the events, ac­cord­ing to those familiar with the gath­er­ing, though oth­ers say Adel­son has been eye­ing Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida.

That would be a coup for Ru­bio, who al­ready has the back­ing of Bra­man, a long­time sup­porter who has in­di­cated he is likely to spend mil­lions.

“I’m com­mit­ted to pro­vide very sub­stan­tial sup­port,” Bra­man, for­mer owner of the Philadel­phia Ea­gles, said in an in­ter­view days be­fore Ru­bio an­nounced his can­di­dacy. Bra­man has been close to Ru­bio for years and hired the se­na­tor’s wife, Jeanette, to han­dle his fam­ily’s char­i­ta­ble giv­ing.

Back­ers of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has yet to sign up a mega-donor, are hope­ful his re­cent fil­i­buster­like at­tempt to shut down gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions will land him a bil­lion­aire.

He shouldn’t have much trou­ble.

“The one thing I can tell you is, there are more bil­lion­aires than you think,” Gra­ham said. Still, he be­lieves no can­di­date can win the nom­i­na­tion with­out shak- ing the hands of vot­ers and at­tend­ing house par­ties in the early pri­mary states.

Foster Friess, a con­ser­va­tive busi­ness­man, spent more than $2 mil­lion to help keep for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia Sen. Rick San­to­rum’s thread­bare cam­paign afloat in 2012, and has said he will con­trib­ute again, but at a lower pro­file.

“I have de­cided to keep the amount of my po­lit­i­cal giv­ing to my­self. I’m sure folks can find it out, some­how, but I’m go­ing to be a lit­tle more cir­cum­spect this go-round,” Friess said by email.

“Is it fair or not for big donors to be giv­ing so much? Does it cre­ate some kind of in­her­ent un­fair­ness?” he went on. “I guess I’d have to ask, is it fair to put lim­its on how peo­ple spend their money? We are sup­posed to be a free coun­try, but as I open the pa­per each day, I see more and more of our free­doms erod­ing.”

For Democrats, big donors in­clude Cal­i­for­nia en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Tom Steyer, who spent $69.2 mil­lion on the 2014 midterm elec­tion and is spend­ing

money in early pri­mary states ahead of 2016. But the dom­i­nance of Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton in the polls means Steyer and other lib­er­als are less likely to inf lu­ence the pri­mary con­test.

Big Repub­li­can donors, in con­trast, can use their power to bring rel­e­vance to can­di­dates or push them into the top tier, giv­ing the donors un­ri­valed clout.

“You have a sense of, shall we say, a cer­tain amount of debt, obli­ga­tion, to one or two or three peo­ple who are your rea­son why you ex­isted,” said Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, the 2008 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee who also co-wrote the cam­paign fi­nance rules that have since been gut­ted by court de­ci­sions.

McCain, like many Repub­li­cans, blames Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­jec­tion of public match­ing money in 2008 — when he heav­ily out­spent McCain on his way to de­feat­ing him — for un­leash­ing much of the flood of money. But it was court de­ci­sions and the 2012 elec­tion that showed the po­ten­tial for big donors to spend un­lim­ited dol­lars and blunt early pri­mary re­sults.

Wit­ness Iowa, where Repub­li­cans long risked near ban­ish­ment from the state if they failed to sup­port a fed­eral re­quire­ment to use corn-based ethanol and other re­new­able fu­els in gaso­line — a boost to the state’s farm econ­omy.

No more. Charles and David Koch, the en­ergy bil­lion­aires who have be­come the lead­ing donors in Repub­li­can pol­i­tics, op­pose the re­quire­ment, call­ing it un­war­ranted gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion into the free mar­ket.

Bush said in March that he wants to phase it out. Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker has hedged his po­si­tion, say­ing he might do the same. Cruz has spon­sored a bill that would elim­i­nate it.

Those three can­di­dates, along with Ru­bio and Paul, were named by Charles Koch on a short list of can­di­dates he might sup­port, though that is un­likely to dis­cour­age oth­ers from court­ing the Kochs.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal re­cently reversed his sup­port for the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, a gov­ern­ment­backed credit agency that lends to for­eign buy­ers of Amer­i­can prod­ucts. The Kochs op­pose the bank, putting them at odds with many con­ser­va­tive al­lies, in­clud­ing the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce.

For­mer Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once evan­ge­lized in the bank’s fa­vor, re­cently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Jour­nal ex­plain­ing his new­found op­po­si­tion to it.

Although the age of the mega-donor may trans­form the nom­i­nat­ing process, it re­mains to be seen whether it will lead to an elec­tion day victory.

John Weaver, who served as McCain’s po­lit­i­cal ad­vi­sor for his pres­i­den­tial runs in 2000 and 2008, noted that the in­flu­ence of such donors in 2012 made Mitt Rom­ney, the even­tual Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, be­lieve he had to take more con­ser­va­tive po­si­tions dur­ing the pri­mary, which hurt him in the gen­eral elec­tion.

“If a can­di­date doesn’t re­ally have grass-roots sup­port, fi­nan­cial sup­port, and can’t raise money broadly … then what the hell are they do­ing?” Weaver said.

Nonethe­less, like oth­ers, he ex­pects more can­di­dates to stay in the race longer this year. They may be able to sur­vive a poor show­ing in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Carolina or Ne­vada and con­tinue cam­paign­ing, even if they are long shots to get the nom­i­na­tion.

“The de­cider,” Rath said, “be­comes some­thing other than the bal­lot box.”

‘You have a sense of, shall we say, a cer­tain amount of debt, obli­ga­tion, to one or two or three peo­ple who are your rea­son why you ex­isted.’

— Sen. John McCain,

2008 GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, on big-money donors

John Locher As­so­ci­ated Press

SHEL­DON ADEL­SON’S money kept Newt Gin­grich af loat in the 2012 pri­maries af­ter his sup­port waned. Such po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age was un­usual at the time.

Keith Srakocic As­so­ci­ated Press

FOSTER FRIESS’ money bankrolled Rick San­to­rum’s 2012 bid for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. Friess says he’ll con­trib­ute again but keep a lower pro­file.

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