A lot of US-based bloggers are speculating about who is going to win or lose in the Congressional mid-terms. Myself, I’ve nothing much to add to that discussion. What’s more interesting to me is the potential transformation happening within the Republican Party. Parties – like most other organizations in advanced industrial democracies – depend on money. And it’s pretty clear that the sources of fundraising are changing. Take a look at this Sunlight Foundation post on the balance between spending by traditional party committees and by outside groups. Or just look at the key graphs.
Then consider the fact that Sharron Angle apparently raised $14 million in the last quarter, mostly from donations of less than $100. The electoral consequences of this may be debatable. What is not debatable is that a world in which crazy-sounding Republican candidates can raise this kind of money from small donations is very different from a world in which they can’t (see also, albeit less spectacular, Christine O’Donnell’s fundraising ).
Here’s the nub as I see it. The Republican Party over the last couple of decades has been a coalition between powerful businessmen, who often didn’t care that much about social issues, but did care about reducing regulation, getting handouts etc, and conservatives, a not-insubstantial portion of whom are batshit crazy. The businessmen provided the money, while the conservatives (crazy and non-crazy) provided the shock troops. This coalition was managed through means such as Grover Norquist’s Wednesday breakfast meeting.
Now the Republican Party is changing, because it is being hit with two simultaneous shocks. The first is Citizens United, which makes it much easier for business to pour money into the electoral process without any real accountability. The second is the advent of new forms of small-donor fundraising, which are both more efficient than the mailing-list model that Richard Viguerie pioneered in a previous generation, and less easy for party grandees to control. The interesting question for me is which of these is likely to prevail over the other. Citizens United suggests the continued – and perhaps increased – dominance of big money in electoral politics. The proliferation of Tea Party candidates, and of small-donor fundraising mechanisms that may be escaping the control of either the Republican party or business suggests the dominance of conservative activists.
You can see arguments for both cases. On the one hand, most of the dominant outside groups seem to be business-as-usual, and dominated by traditional figures like Karl Rove, who are highly experienced at mediating tensions. On the other, Rove was forced into a humiliating climbdown when he questioned the electability of Christine O’Donnell (a candidate who is clearly not the one that business friendly Republicans wanted, even apart from her electability issues – business likes deregulation, but it likes policy stability even more).
At the least, the institutions that constitute the Republican party are getting looser. This may have consequences in elections down the road, where Republicans do not have as favorable an environment as they do today. There are reasons why the Obama campaign in 2008 tried to clamp down on spending by friendly independent groups- it makes it harder to coordinate, to communicate a common message etc. But it’s also highly plausible that the internal tensions of the Republican coalition will increase. The conservative activists within the Tea Party look isolationist on foreign policy (scaring neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol). They are probably not especially keen on free trade either (which leads to worries for Republican-friendly business). And a less centralized Republican party will be less easily able to manage these tensions than a more decentralized one, in which dissenters have independent financial and organizational resources to draw upon. It could be that all of this is resolved (if e.g. corporate money simply swamps grassroot donations and energy over the longer term, and at the primary level as well as in elections. It could be, as some argue, that this is an illusion and that the Tea Party are mere puppets of big business (I don’t think this is true myself – even if Koch, Armey etc helped get things started, they don’t look to me as though they are in control – but I could be wrong). But I’m cautiously betting myself on substantially increased tensions within the party, and perhaps even a fracturing of the underlying coalition over the next few years. Counterarguments welcome.
Update: As I noted in the original post, TPM suggested that most of Angle’s $14 million might not have been spent in useful ways. Looks like that’s confirmed.