Ted Cruz made some good points about the split between Republican donors and Republican voters, and I think that, if anything, Cruz underestimated the extent of that division.
Cruz talks about billionaires, but I think that leaves out most of the people who form the donor class. These people are regional corporate executives and owners of small and medium-sized businesses in the agricultural, hospitality and construction businesses who worry that a tightening labor market will force them to raise wages for lower-skilled workers. I don’t see it as any tragedy that lower-skill American workers who endured a brutal Great Recession are now facing the prospect of wage increases and employers competing for their services, but the concerns of the business owners are real to them.
Cruz tells a dramatic story of Republican politicians knuckling under to pro-choice New York billionaires, but I think that there is something more subtle and intractable going on. The donor class isn’t just K Street. It is the local Chamber of Commerce. The donors don’t just (or even primarily) buy Republican politicians. They cultivate those politicians.
The business interest are the most persistent and well-integrated element of the Republican Party. They don’t just show up for rallies and primaries. They don’t just write checks. They invite these politicians for functions, and what do Republican politicians see? They see the doers who built that. The politicians naturally gravitate toward the priorities of their most visible allies. Upfront amnesty and low-skill guest worker programs are just common sense, but late-term abortion bans are a distraction from the real work of government.
It would be easier if Republican politicians were simply bought. They could always be bought back by the lure of votes. Walker wanted to sell out to immigration restrictionists, but he didn’t know how. Walker didn’t know how immigration restrictionists talked or thought. They were alien to him.
Think about it from the perspective of the Republican office holder. Who looks more reasonable to him? Is it the audience at the local Chamber of Commerce Dinner, or is it the crowd at a Tea Party Rally? I suspect that many Republican politicians sincerely see their own party as composed of sober businessmen, plus crazy people wearing tricorne hats, plus crazy people waving fetus selfies, plus crazy people jabbering about Mexicans. The behavior of establishment Republican politicians can be seen as trying to placate/gull the various crazies so that the real work of the business lobbies can finally get done.
I think that the stunted imaginations and sympathies of Republican politicians are a greater obstacle than the influence of the billionaires.