Editorial: Smart Money; Tracking the Flow of Political Donations

Having fretted and kvetched about all those millions and billions poured into bad political causes in the last election cycle, we wonder whether the angst level should be lowered a notch. The money now appears to be flowing toward less-bad causes and, in a few instances, even some good ones.

The question arises in the wake of reports of the formation of a new “super PAC” — the Conservative Victory Project — that is focusing on securing a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in 2014, when a net loss of six seats now held by Democrats would transfer control of the chamber. No, we’re not looking forward to Sen. Mitch McConnell becoming Senate majority leader. But according to a Feb. 2 story in The New York Times, the Conservative Victory Project’s strategy is very different from the one in 2012, when money from the Koch brothers, Texas oil fields and other deep pools of reactionary influence flowed toward just about any candidate with a pulse who pledged to shrink government, protect privilege or thwart President Obama.

The Conservative Victory Project wants to field candidates who don’t merely stir the passions of the deeply conservative voters who tend to determine the outcomes of Republican primaries, but rather those who also appeal to the wider electorate and therefore have a legitimate shot at winning a general election. In other words, the big money seems intent on marginalizing the Tea Party.

A shift toward pragmatism isn’t surprising. The political right spent a lot of money in 2012 and got very little in return. The loathed president remained in the White House, the Senate became more Democratic, and the House ended up less Republican. Even billionaires have to worry about getting good value for their money, we suppose.

In any case, this can’t be a bad thing. True, moderation in the Republican Party is relative concept, but we’ll feel less anxious about the future if the candidates chosen to advance the Republican cause are modeled more after Richard Lugar — the eminently sensible Indiana senator who was knocked off in a Republican primary — and less after Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party darling who beat Lugar and went on to lose the general election after suggesting that pregnancy by rape was “something God intended.”

According to Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-backed PAC that is giving birth to this new one, “Our approach will be to institutionalize the (William F.) Buckley rule: Support the most conservative candidate who can win.”

Meanwhile, if you were pleased to witness the smartly produced Super Bowl pitch for more extensive background checks of gun purchasers, you can thank multi-billionaire and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the primary backer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Bloomberg is not the only successful businessman to throw considerable money behind a progressive cause, of course; George Soros has been doing it for years. But the ad is a useful reminder that not all of the money flowing into the political system from the well-off is moving in one direction.

But we still reserve the right to worry. Not only is the sheer volume of money being pumped into the political system and the fact that some of it can’t be sourced deeply disquieting, it’s unhealthy to have so much riding on the whims of the wealthy. For comparison purposes — that is, to highlight a political development that appears unambiguously encouraging — we would select Republicans’ newfound receptiveness to immigration reform. That came about not because of a cash infusion from the deep-pocketed few, but as the result of millions going to the polls and making it clear that politicians who failed to heed voters’ wishes faced electoral extinction.