Opinion: Money war for the GOP's soul

In a political street-fight for control of the Republican brand between big business on one side and Tea Party extremists on the other, who do you put your on money on?

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Where do Republicans put their money?

As a very high-ranking Republican told me last week: “We have a total split between people who give us $30 and the people who give us $30,000.”

The $30 donors are the Tea Party donors. The $30,000 donors are business groups.

The Tea Party donors are the red-face folks listening to right-wing radio while buying Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) promise that he could end ObamaCare with a government shutdown.

They are the people who clicked “donate” on websites last week to give to the Senate Conservatives Fund as the group trumpeted its decision to oppose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The SCF endorsed Matt Bevin, McConnell’s Tea Party opponent in the Kentucky primary.

According to a spokesman for the SCF, McConnell has “a long record of siding with Democrats and supporting liberal policies.” In fact, McConnell has one of the strongest conservative voting records in Congress. But for some, it is not conservative enough.

By whipping up the far-right Republican base, the SCF raised $2.6 million in the last three months, according to its latest financial statements. But as conservative columnist Kimberley Strassel recent wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the SCF “has not spent one dollar this year in support of a Senate candidate.”

Last week, the SCF, Club for Growth and the Madison Project also endorsed a far-right primary opponent running against Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi. Again, their pitch for donations is to charge Cochran, despite his conservative voting record, as weak in attacking the Washington establishment.

Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and another fundraising dynamo, is using a similar pitch. She wrote on her Facebook page last week that she is looking forward to a primary challenge against Cochran in Mississippi; Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina; and Sen. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee.

Similarly, Cruz raised $1.19 million in the last reporting period, even while he was undermining GOP congressional leaders and leading the party to its lowest level of support in polling history. His own approval rating is a low 14 percent but his war chest is overflowing.

It has long been obvious there is money to be made in catering to right-wing anger by demonizing liberals in general and President Obama in particular. But, as Cruz and Palin demonstrate, the new whipping boy for the Tea Party is the current set of Republican leaders.

It is now Republican against Republican. Specifically, Tea Party Republicans against non-Tea Party Republicans.

The only force available to counter Tea Party dollars is big bucks from big business.

Political Action Committees run by business groups gave $229 million to Republicans in the 2011-2012 election cycle (and just $135 million to Democrats), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Chamber of Commerce gave 83 percent of its money to Republicans in 2010. But big business did not get any legislative wins for its agenda: a simpler tax code, reining in the long-term deficit, immigration reform, and a stable political environment to bolster consumer confidence and spending.

Creating consumer and investor nervousness by closing the government is definitely not the big business agenda.

“It is not in the best interest of the employers, employees or the American people to risk a government shutdown that will be economically disruptive,” the Chamber and a group of 251 business groups wrote in an open letter to Congress. Then Republicans pushed ahead, closing the government anyway.

The New York Times recently reported that one reason Tea Party activists now dominate the GOP is that big “companies may have spent too little,” on campaigns. The dollars from big business are less important, the paper said, than money from “big individual donors who are more ideologically extreme.”

In 2012, according to the Times, “the top 0.1 percent of donors contributed more than 44 percent of all campaign contributions.” Thirty years ago the very rich gave less than 10 percent of campaign money with big business paying the lion’s share of the money to support campaigns.

Money from the extreme right-wing has come to dominate GOP politics, especially in the primaries, and eclipse the party’s moderate, business-first identity. That is why big business is getting back in the game.

David French, a lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, told reporters that business groups will put money in the hands of possibly 25 non-Tea Party, pro-business Republicans in the 2014 midterms.

And last week Dirk Van Dongen, chief lobbyist of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, fired an opening shot at the Tea Party, telling the Washington Post: “I don’t know of anybody in the business community who take the side of the Taliban minority.”

Welcome to the money war for the future of the GOP.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.