Big GOP donors keeping their 2016 powder dry

The Washington Post reports that, on the whole, wealthy Republican donors are unwilling so far to commit to a candidate for president. According to reporters Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger, the donor class is “wary of fueling the kind of costly and politically damaging battle that dominated the 2012 primaries.” More to the point, it’s unclear at this early juncture which potential candidate it makes the most sense to support.

The so-called establishment must be in a quandary. Two of its favorites — Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney — have not shown a clear desire to run. Both, moreover, are flawed. Bush has a losing name and Romney has a loser’s record. In addition, Bush has indicated that, if he runs, he will take an aggressive, almost Huntsmannesque posture towards the hard right.

The establishment may well share Bush’s attitude. But its more astute members surely sense that, as a practical matter, a candidate who expresses it will fuel a politically damaging battle that will make 2012 look like a picnic.

Many members of the establishment also like Chris Christie. But they surely sense that, at this point, Christie might be a bridge too far.

On the other end of the spectrum, things are probably a bit more clear. Rand Paul wants to run and there are few ambiguities about what his candidacy would look like. But I doubt there are many big money takers.

Ted Cruz also seems quite interested in running. The Post says, however, that he must compete for Texas bundlers with Bush and Rick Perry and for wealthy evangelicals with Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee.

The bigger problem for Cruz may be doubts about the candidate. Does he stand as close to Rand Paul on national security issues as he sometimes has seemed to? And does his reputation as a flame-thrower render him nearly unelectable? Evangelicals may not be concerned about electability, but other major bundlers, in Texas and elsewhere, surely are.

For many of us, the most attractive nominee is the one who can bridge the gap between the so-called establishment and the so-called base. But the identity of that candidate (or candidates) is far from clear.

The most promising is Scott Walker. His successful showdowns with public employee unions make him a hero to the base. His status as a successful candidate and governor in a centrist state, with little on the record regarding a host of key issues, makes him interesting to the establishment.

But Walker’s “blank slate” status cuts both ways. It’s questionable whether he can attract big bucks until he commits on major issues, yet his lack of commitment is part of what makes him attractive. In addition, big donors will probably want to see him on the campaign trail (or some informal version of it) before coalescing around him.

Who else might bridge the gap? Two years ago, before he committed to amnesty-style immigration reform, Marco Rubio would have been perfect for the role. Nowadays, the establishment still likes him, but would probably prefer Bush if the former governor runs. The base, meanwhile, will probably have a hard time forgetting how easily Chuck Schumer rolled Rubio.

There are others among the many potential presidential contenders who might fill the bridge role. I’ll discuss three of them — Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal.

Like Ryan, Rubio would have made an excellent bridge candidate a few years ago. These days, his status with the base probably isn’t what it used to be for two reasons. First, his association with Mitt Romney; second his association with “reform conservatism,” which many on the right fear is “compassionate conservatism” re-branded.

These problems seem less serious than Rubio’s. However, it’s far from clear that Ryan wants to run for president.

Rick Perry is neither quite “establishment” nor quite “base.” For him, I suspect this would mean trouble getting off the ground. But depending on who else is in the field, Perry could grow on one or both of the factions if he does well in debates.

Jindal should have modest appeal to both the establishment and the base. But unless he proves to be charismatic on the campaign trail, his impact on the race would probably be modest, at best.

I hope I’ve have made it clear that the big donors (and small ones too) are well-advised to continue their wait-and-see attitude towards the potential GOP presidential field. As Republican operative Richard Hohlt told the Post, ““What most of us have learned in the last two cycles is that you need to verify the effectiveness of the campaign organization and the ability of the candidate to get across the finish line.”

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