Last week the satirical website The Onion mixed politics and the holiday season with a story headlined “Koch Brothers Get Each Other Same Election For Christmas.” Referring to the energy magnates known for their heavy contributions to conservative candidates, the fake story said that Charles and David “admitted they were a bit embarrassed to learn they had each given the other U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s congressional seat.”
In a sly primer on election laws, the story continues, “The brothers said they were relieved to have spent the same amount on their gifts, having both made the maximum $2,700 in direct donations to the incumbent representative’s campaign and, through their super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund, earmarked $2 million to pay for attack ads and mailers to smear Zeldin’s challenger in the key swing district.”
But the story also referred to the political office that has been frustrating big donors like the Koch brothers, claiming that the pair “went in” for Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker earlier this year and that he had been “a real letdown,” as Charles put it. Governor Walker, who shared the Koch brothers’ zeal for busting labor unions, dropped out of the race in September, having been eclipsed by the campaign of Donald Trump—whose personal fortune and talent for getting free news coverage makes him less dependent on donors.
Mr. Trump is not through causing heartburn for big political donors looking for a friendly face in the White House after eight years. “Republican Billionaires Just Can’t Seem to Buy This Election” is the perhaps premature headline of a post by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, who notes that the people who funded Jeb Bush’s $100 million war chest are getting pretty antsy about their investment.
Some big contributors still haven’t gotten over the shock of Barack Obama getting re-elected in 2012. “I had every expectation we would be the victors,” Kenneth Langone tells Mr. Sherman. The co-founder of Home Depot gave half a million dollars to the still-operating American Crossroads political action committee, controlled by political strategist Karl Rove, that was supposed to help defeat Mr. Obama through negative TV ads. “I gave Rove $500,000,” Mr. Langone fumes. “What did I get for it? Nothing!”
Republican donors have helped the GOP maintain control of the House of Representatives since 2010, and to take control of the Senate in 2014, but those victories have been marred by the fact that President Obama still has a veto pen and the ability to issue executive orders. Writing about the rise of the Freedom Caucus in the House—the ones who think threatening to shut down the government is great political strategy—The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza points to the influence of campaign contributors. One GOP House member tells Mr. Lizza, “I got an e-mail from a gentleman back home,” Meadows told me. “He said, ‘I’ve worked hard and I’ve given money and yet nothing is happening.’ And this was from a country-club Republican, not a Tea Party activist. That had a real impact.”
“I’ve given money and yet nothing is happening”!
To most Americans, giving to a political campaign is like playing the state lottery. You’re not guaranteed to win, and even if you do, the return might not be that great. Maybe you elect someone who promises to end your city’s traffic jams, and all he can do is repave a short stretch of highway. But you can’t expect someone who shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a campaign to be a gracious loser. In the New York magazine piece, Mr. Sherman writes that one hedge-fund manager who helped to fund Mr. Rove’s anti-Obama campaign even looked into suing the PAC for fraud. (He had no case; painting too-rosy a picture about an election outcome is not against the law.)
For the most part, the big donors to the Republican Party are terrified of Mr. Trump—who runs strongest among Republicans with no more than a high school education—getting the presidential nomination. They think he’ll lose to Hillary Clinton, and even if he gets into the Oval Office, they afraid he won’t share their priorities. (The Republican elite doesn’t want to stop immigration, and they don’t want to start trade wars with China or anyone else.)
But the donor elite’s trashing of the Republican Party as ineffective, and their encouragement of never-compromise politics, has helped to fuel Mr. Trump’s campaign. People like Mr. Langone (“I gave Rove $500,000!”) are miffed, but Republican voters who don’t have 50 bucks to spare on a campaign are angry that Obamacare still exists and the president seems to be more worried about climate change than terrorism. In a focus group run by Frank Luntz for CBS News, one Trump supporter says he would vote for the businessman even as an independent candidate: “Yeah, I’d vote for him over [Marco] Rubio because maybe the party does need to be fractured. Maybe it’s time to blow it up. Blow it up.”
With that kind of talk in the air, no one can expect a guaranteed return on any campaign contributions in 2016.