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The establishment must answer to the voters or face more challenges

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Donor sentiments have not traditionally been in lockstep with voter sentiments, as the establishment wings of both parties have managed to govern in such a way that most donors are rubbing along. But this cycle, large donor sentiments are migrating to align with mass voter sentiments. There are several reasons. After several expensive cycles to win control of the Congress and White House, there is an expectation that the long promised actions would be taken, which have not occurred.

Information is now communicated differently, through social media and other nontraditional sources, confirming rather than challenging beliefs. House districts have been gerrymandered so that most are safe, Senate seats are seen as either competitive or not based on registration, and voter migration is making those distinctions more clear.

{mosads}Therefore, the question put before voters is often not whether or not that party holds that seat, but rather what the winner of that seat means to the policy and leadership fights within the governing party. Long before the voters get their say at the ballot box, donors weigh in on what is known as the money primary. For contestable Senate and House seats, these are nationwide contests, with incumbents and challengers making the rounds with key donors. We get to hear how they view their race, what the messages will be, how they plan to define their opponents, and how the money will be raised and spent.

Republican establishment candidates have long held enormous positional power in the form of incumbency or long histories of public office, high name recognition, influential endorsements, large donor networks of bell cows, bundlers and donors, plus leading political action committees. These networks generate the early dollars to scare off primary fights and make investments in small donor machinery that sustain a campaign through rough patches. In the past, the establishment combination of positional power and financial resources have constituted what amounts to overwhelming force that usually blows away challengers. Now, it looks more like “all hat, no cattle.”

The logic of self-preservation underlies this bad alignment. If policies and actions align with the components of their positional power, they can go back to those folks to raise large sums early, and use the money and other strengths of their positions to win elections. But this traditional establishment formula is no longer the determinative advantage it once was because the value of money is lessening with new campaign technologies that do things differently. In the old days, big money was raised and spent to define oneself, solidify the base, identify the persuadables, test and disseminate the messages that were most effective at drawing favorable distinctions with the opponent, then go negative late, defining the opponent and suppressing their turnout.

These days, it is more cost effective and more certain to spend the money developing better and better lists of voters who already agree with you, narrowly casting messages through social media that analysis says will motivate each individual voter the most, and turning them out. One campaign manager estimates the cost of an effective base campaign on social media is less than $1 per voter that turns out, as compared to several times that for traditional campaigns. In comparison to base campaign targeting and communication, persuasion of the dwindling middle through TV ads is expensive and inefficient. This means that money is no longer an overwhelming force.

The structural advantage is now with the Republican base, as they have the numbers, and a less expensive way to communicate with them. We saw this with Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and we see it again and again for 2018 with Judge Roy Moore over Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama, Danny Tarkanian leading Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, Kelli Ward basically pushing Sen. Jeff Flake out of the race in Arizona, and Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement in the face of a base primary challenge.

One senator told me that he recommends his colleagues in Congress hold town halls, set up a whiteboard, and ask folks what are the 20 issues they care most about. Don’t argue, just listen and write down what they hear. Then, do the same thing with the lobbyists and special interests in Washington. Compare the two lists to what leadership is doing. Don’t be surprised if 19 out of 20 things leadership is doing matchup with the lobbyist and special interest wish list. That is why the base is pissed off and why the institutions have such low approval ratings.

In this environment, smart donors are not putting so much weight on money advantages. They need to see policy alignment with voters. Whether donors are putting up $25 or raising $250,000, no one wants to back a loser. Losers don’t make policy. Winners do. Across the political spectrum, donors big and small are demanding that elected officials enact policies they campaigned on.

Dan Palmer is a Republican donor and conservative political strategist. He served as executive director of United We Stand, planned the potential transition of Ted Cruz, and supported the campaigns of Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump. Find him on Facebook @RealDanPalmer.

Tags Bob Corker campaign Congress Dean Heller Donald Trump Election Hillary Clinton Jeff Flake Luther Strange Politics Republicans Ted Cruz voters

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