You Can’t Buy Your Way Around The Party

The New York Times‘ John Guida had a piece up yesterday pointing out that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has taken the unusual step of starting up a 527 organization to fund his early presidential campaign. Guida spoke with my fellow Mischief Julia Azari (and referenced some of her previous work), arguing that by creating a 527, Walker may have some freedom to get around the preferences of Republican Party insiders:

By building up a reserve of cash from a relatively small number of deep-pocketed donors… he could cut the party out altogether or at least minimize its influence, stick to an insurgent’s message and appeal, and surpass the party’s preferred candidate — in this election, Jeb Bush.

This is a very interesting idea, suggesting an important way the rise of “outside” money may have changed nomination politics in consequential ways. It is also, I think, incorrect, in the sense that 527s aren’t nearly as independent of “the party” as they’re often portrayed.

In a series of papers I did with David Dulio and fellow Mischief Richard Skinner (here and here), we examined the personnel records of the largest 527s of the last decade and found that many of those employees had strong ties to the formal parties. Many of the same people running 527s had also been party staffers, had worked on presidential campaigns, or could otherwise be classified as insiders. Indeed, we found that 527s were closely integrated within the larger party networks of both parties.

This is a large part of the reason why campaigns rarely end up complaining about the advertisements produced by their allied 527 groups, even though they can’t legally coordinate their activities. It’s not that there’s a lot of illegal coordination going on. It’s just that it’s largely the same people running both efforts. If a person running a 527 today was a Romney staffer or an RNC researcher just a few years ago, chances are she has a pretty good idea what a solid Republican advertising strategy looks like.

And what of Walker’s new 527, Our American Revival? Their one IRS disclosure lists just two employees, Molly Weininger (custodian) and Andrew Hitt (contact person). Hitt could probably be described as someone with personal and professional loyalties to Walker. He’s worked in Governor Walker’s office and served with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Walker also recently appointed him to the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority Board.

Weininger, however, previously interned and worked for the Republican Party of Wisconsin for several years before Walker become governor. Her career is not a lengthy one, but it suggests someone with party loyalties rather than personal ones.

Like most 527s, this is one with at least some ties to formal party structures. And it would be dependent on some very party-loyal donors if it’s going to have any impact on the 2016 nomination process. That doesn’t mean that it can’t produce a message that supports Walker at the expense of Jeb Bush or another insider-backed candidate. It’s just unlikely to have preferences that differ from those of other party insiders, or to be able to overwhelm those insiders’ influence with a few ads. Any flexibility or advantages that Walker believes he has due to this campaign finance strategy are likely to prove illusory.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.