The Wisconsin Idea: Scott Walker’s New 527

After his speech at the Freedom Summit this weekend in Iowa, Scott Walker has emerged as the favorite candidate of the moment for the 2016 Republican nomination. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Walker has the advantage of having broad appeal across different segments of the party, but several key disadvantages, too. True to Jason McDaniel’s prediction last week, foreign policy remains a weak point in some conservative circles. But otherwise, Walker seems to be attracting a great deal of positive attention.

The Wisconsin governor announced this week that he was starting a 527 organization, called Our American Revival, to raise money for a potential presidential run. Walker’s choice of fundraising organization is a bit distinct from what Christie and Bush have done – they’ve created leadership PACs. The tradeoff for Walker is that a 527 cannot expressly advocate for his candidacy or coordinate with his campaign. But a 527 isn’t subject to the same “hard money” limitations on donations, and they are regulated by the IRS (527 refers to the status of a political organization in the tax code), not the FEC.*

Walker has already had some campaign finance trouble and some famous interactions with the Koch brothers (sort of). The announcement of his committee comes at the same time that the Koch have signaled their intention to spend hundreds of millions on the 2016 elections. In other words, we’re due for another round of hand-wringing over money in politics, corruption, and the ability of a few wealthy individuals to “buy” U.S. elections. This outrage may be justified, although the evidence about the actual effects of money is mixed.

More importantly, the furious response to our campaign finance situation obscures its origins. We can draw a direct line from reform efforts to “clean up” politics and weaken party organizations – also seen as corrupt and undemocratic – to our current regulations.

Politics used to be labor-intensive, and has become increasingly capital-intensive (although the emphasis on “ground game” in recent elections may signal additional change on this front). Reform movements – particularly the Progressives (who have a strong historical legacy in Wisconsin) and the civil service reform movement around the turn of the twentieth century – targeted the labor-intensive model of party politics. The second wave of reforms, which brought about our present campaign finance regime, happened after Watergate. The problems that these reforms addressed were real. Nevertheless, reform movements to “clean up” politics and remove corrupting influences often rest on anti-political and anti-party logic. The idea that candidates should forge direct relationships with the electorate, without parties as intermediaries, sounds good but has produced perverse results. It’s important to balance anti-corruption measures with structures that maintain diverse accountability structures. That’s something that parties, when they work well, are positioned to do. The early party organizations, which get a bad rap in all sorts of ways, connected presidential candidates with local organizations in different parts of the country, thus making them accountable to an array of interests.** In other words, party machines and patronage networks have problems, but they can also create linkages between elites and citizens, and bring different segments of society into the decision-making process.

When candidates create their own fundraising committees, separate from party, they are no longer accountable to the diverse elements of a party coalition (which, make no mistake, includes donors and powerful interests), but, instead, directly to donors. Leadership PACs have at least some collective dimension insofar as they allow candidates to give funds to others in their parties. But Walker’s creation of a 527 represents an impulse to skip all of that – to develop resources instead of connections. After forty years of candidates “running against Washington,” this impulse is hardly surprising or new. But it should make us think about the unintended consequences of reforms that weaken political parties, and about how the rules can alter the structures of accountability. Political parties have their problems, but when it comes to broadening the base of accountability, they have many advantages over the alternative.

*Technically, all PACs are 527s. But all 527s are not PACs, and so when we say that Walker has formed a 527, we mean he’s formed a non-PAC 527.

** Although some of these interests were pretty regrettable. The real stain on the legacy of the convention system is that it allowed the South, with all of of its racial baggage, to have a veto in Democratic nominations for 100 years. But this is also representative of a deeper problem – a subject for another post, at minimum.

[Cross-posted Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.