For Thirty Pieces Of Silver

When it comes to campaign finance, the tea party movement just doesn’t get it

“You can’t save the world if you can’t pay the rent.” – Morton Blackwell

It’s always an interesting academic exercise to attempt to calculate what Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver would have been worth in contemporary American currency. Depending upon whose calculations you use (and what assumptions they started with), estimates have varied from a few “benjamins” to a quarter-million “eisenhowers.” Almost all of the speculation, however, misses the point. And if you’re wondering how Judas’ epic infamy is connected to Mr. Blackwell’s wisdom, well, we’ll discuss that after the break.

To paint the picture a bit more clearly, let’s think about it this way: Take the time to write down on a scrap piece of paper your total monthly pre-tax income (all sources). Then multiply that number by a factor of 4. Now picture that total sitting in front of you, in cash, to do with as you please. And all you have to do to walk away with that money is this one simple, harmless thing that the fella offering it is asking you to do. Because, in financial terms, that’s what we’re really discussing here; doing something apparently innocent in exchange for whatever amount of money represents four months worth of income to you.

And if the first thought that comes to your mind is that something like that would never tempt you, then I’ll tell you truthfully that you really don’t understand temptation at all (because the only way money doesn’t tempt is if it isn’t your weak point to begin with).

Saul Anuzis once said that it takes a grand total of two things to win an election . . . money and everything else. Say what you will about the man, but he has a point here. Money alone doesn’t win an election, but without it, nothing else happens. Yard signs, mailers, palm cards, radio, television, newspapers, t-shirts, parade floats . . . all of that is advertising (and none of it is free). Driving around the district – let alone the state – to get to speaking events and fundraisers requires gas, road food, and other assorted transportation expenses, emphasis on “expense.” Hell, even dedicated volunteers have to be fed, regardless of whether they’re manning phones or knocking doors, and that isn’t free either.

In Michigan, the partisan campaign cycle for Republicans starts with the biennial Mackinac Conference (typically the third weekend of September of a given odd-numbered year) and runs through the biennial Winter State Convention (typically the final weekend of February of the next odd-numbered year), a total of 75 weeks if I have the math right. (Of those, we tend to think only of the dedicated campaigning that happens during the 28 weeks between the Filing Deadline and Election Day, but that’s only just over 1/3 of the total cycle.) We’re accustomed to candidates, and both state and national party headquarters, routinely asking for money during this time; maybe we donate, maybe we don’t. But if your name has ever been on a public ballot for anything further up the political food chain than Precinct Delegate, then you have some first-hand experience with why candidates often spend at least one day each week begging for money.

Keeping that in mind, how do we expect a candidate to react if someone offers them enough money to bankroll all of their operations from the Filing Deadline through Labor Day? As Tom pointed out a few weeks ago, money is always in play during campaign season, and in politics, strings are always attached. That having been said, when there’s enough money on the table to allow a candidate to get through the primary election by focusing on campaign operations instead of campaign logistics, we who are reasonable can understand why most would have a hard time walking away from that offer. In fact, so far as I know, the only candidate who can turn that offer down without at least thinking about it is either (a) capable of independently bankrolling his own campaign, or (b) knows as a fact that his campaign treasurer has his back financially. Other than that . . .

And the annoying thing is that the constitutionalist insurgency, for as bright as they are generally, just doesn’t seem to understand this concept. The tea party movement and liberty network rightly want platform republicans to run and serve, but refuse to break out their checkbooks during campaign season. As loudly as they decry the corrupting influence of money in politics, they don’t seem to comprehend that an underfrunded candidate is, realistically, more vulnerable than one who is adequately bankrolled. Often, they’re genuinely dismayed and/or surprised when a tea party friendly candidate either gets smoked in their electoral contest (whether primary, convention, or general), or when they go “off the reservation” once in office. Nor is this the limit of their naïveté when it comes to such matters.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Freedom Fund was openly recruiting libertarian democrats to run as republican precinct delegates. (Nor were they being particularly discriminate about it, as they’ve recruited an openly-gay former democrat legislative staffer to run against a sitting member of the MIGOP State Committee.) The stated intent is to remove Dave Agema as Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman, and apparently also to completely shut down the tea party voice going forward. How effective this is going to be is yet an open question, but we should note that the precinct delegates elected in August will decide the state committee makeup in February 2015, and will be the convention delegate pool for the May 2016 convention when Dave has to stand for reelection.

I say that we don’t yet know how effective this is going to be, because I have no clue as to whether the constitutionalist insurgency is adequately prepared to put up any sort of organized resistance to a coordinated purge effort. Though, by every reasonable account, the insurgency outnumbers the establishment by about a 7-to-3 margin within the Michigan Republican delegation pool, it’s a rare occasion when the establishment loses a primary or convention contest worth discussing. This is most likely because the establishment power-brokers know how to work as a team, while of late the insurgency leadership cannot seem to get past inter-factional urinating competitions.

Nor, as I observed earlier, does the insurgency seem to grasp the concept of properly bankrolling their candidates for office. Prime evidence of this is that Dave Agema is struggling to keep his PAC (Top Gun Conservatives) properly funded, yet his supporters in the insurgency seem to insist on sitting on their checkbooks. In contrast, the establishment reelection team in Michigan has bankrolled at least four consulting firms (to the tune of $1,000,000 each, so I’m told) specifically so that they could retain a full time staff (combined total of between 30 and 36) . . . for the sole purpose of recruiting precinct delegate candidates to silence as many grassroots voices as possible at the next three state conventions (specifically including the one at which Dave Agema will have to stand for reelection). Again, underfunded equals vulnerable.

And if you think for one minute that any particular tea party darling, once elected, is immune to the influence of money, then let me direct your attention to a certain libertarian republican currently sitting in the congressional seat once occupied by Jerry Ford, and most recently held by Vern Ehlers. Back in May of 2012, when the grassroots and establishment were headed for a Showdown in Motown, a certain “tea party standard bearer” had endorsed the tea party challenger to an incumbent whose comeuppance was long overdue. In doing so, he joined a list of endorsers that would better than double in the intervening two weeks before the state convention (including a certain other congressional candidate who’s also quite popular with the liberty-minded crowd), and provide rock-solid evidence that the constitutionalist insurgency in Michigan is perfectly capable of working as a cohesive unit.

That was then, this is now. If there have been any similar cohesive operations amongst the insurgency in the intervening two years, then I’ve seen precious little evidence of it. What I have seen, to be frank, is the blueblooded elites in the establishment do a marvelous job of getting the grassroots insurgency to fight itself (when they don’t have them bought-and-paid-for to begin with). If you need a reminder, then let me provide you with a few:

  • What was never made public knowledge regarding the Michigan Healthcare Freedom Initiative (2010 ballot proposal), but which I learned during the spring of 2012, was that the MIGOP used the proposal as a voter-identification data-mining exercise. All of those petition pages that had the state party logo on them? Yeah, T.P.T.B. didn’t turn any of them over to the Michigan Citizens for Healthcare Freedom . . . but rather sat on them as a way to upgrade their contact database. Why secretly kill something that was a rallying point for an active and energized grassroots base? Does Medicaid Expansion ring any bells?
  • In September of 2012, a certain influential tea party leader from Northern Michigan received a phone call from a certain high-ranking elected official, literally the morning of the state convention, offering a deal that was just too good to pass up. All the tea party leader had to do was withdraw as Judge Markey’s nominator. (And I have five witnesses to the convention-floor conversation that said tea party leader had with said judge, who will happily speak on the record, should I decide that I’ve nothing better to do with my time than take down a pawn.) The end result was a chief executive with some political capital to spend, as a result of being fortunate enough to be the one in office when a thirty year public discussion – capped by a four-year, all-grassroots effort – actually paid off.
  • Even though support for the Michigan Tax Limitation Amendment (Proposal 12-5) should have been a housekeeping vote at the September 2012 MIGOP State Convention, T.P.T.B. within the MIGOP couldn’t be bothered to put a resolution supporting the proposal before the convention delegation for a floor vote. Even though initial public support for the proposal was high enough for passage, the lack of political support that the “party of fiscal conservatism” could have provided, coupled with the open assault by the GoverNerd, was enough to kill it at the polls on Election Day. Said open assault included dumping a truckload of red herrings along the campaign trail, enough to bring multiple county parties, district leadership organizations, and tea party leaders onboard the “privately funded bus tour” for the specific purpose of causing enough internal division within the insurgency to take any wind out of the sails the proposal had pre-convention. By the way, after taking a look at Senate Bill 791 and Senate Bill 934, how do you suppose that “no on five” is working out these days?
  • Recall that one of the major themes during 2010, on the old version of this site, was the necessity of killing Proposal 10-1, the state constitution convention question mandated every 16 years by Article XII § 3 of the Michigan Constitution. The matter was serious enough then that the 2010 MIGOP State Convention actually conducted a floor debate on the question (and the floor resolution to oppose passed all but unanimously). Yet, because some radio talk jockey who’s popular with the tea party movement wrote a book, all of a sudden, a sizable chunk of the tea partiers in Michigan are all gaga over Senate Joint Resolution V (2013), as though calling for a convention of the states is going to provide us with any better outcome than a state constitution convention would.
  • I’m not sure why the state’s grassroots seems to be so willing to buy into a narrative that doesn’t survive even a basic fact check, but more than a few tea party leaders in this state have pilloried me for daring to call into question the credibility of an education board candidate who has, by her own admission, an 18-year history on university governing boards in Michigan. The public record associated with that history is, by the way, fair game for honest investigative scrutiny. Yet the board candidate who’s carefully crafted his “one of us” image (though his congressional donation history and campaign finance management raises some questions) has said that he wants her as his running mate, so the tea parties dutifully circle their wagons. (Further, a recent former employer of mine has openly threatened to run a smear campaign against a third candidate for this nomination, apparently because he dares to challenge the “duly anointed” nominees.) To be fair, I’m also drawing fire from the establishment over this, so apparently I’m an equal opportunity nuisance on this one.
  • The Part-Time Legislature Initiative has coordinators in all 83 of Michigan’s counties, but, as we saw last weekend, finances are a bit tight for the initiative committee right now, which threatens the viability of the initiative once it’s on the ballot. I spoke with one of the committee’s leaders earlier this week, and he told me that one of their problems is that they don’t have even one deep-pocket donor committed to helping them fund their campaign, and apparently the chairwoman of the wooden shoe mafia is deliberately chasing away potential deep-pocket donors, for no reason other than that a certain national committeeman is openly lending his credibility to the initiative. (Although, to be fair, the Michigan Campaign for Liberty seems to honestly believe that this can be accomplished through the legislative process, which brings us back to the naïveté that I referenced before.)

. . . and we now come back to that “tea party darling” libertarian republican congressman who was quite comfortable endorsing Agema For RNC a shade over two years ago. Yet earlier this year, in response to a manufactured controversy, he quickly joined the bandwagon of high-profile republicans who were demanding that Dave Agema resign his position.

This begs the question of why. Of the republicans on that aforementioned high-profile list, Justin Amash is the only one who’d actually endorsed Dave Agema’s run at Saul Anuzis; the rest had endorsed the incumbent, if they’d said anything at all, so their actions weren’t exactly surprising. And given that his primary opponent had also weighed in against Agema, Amash could have simply taken the high road, stayed out of it (as Dan Benishek and Kerry Bentivolio did), and let the whole matter go as a free speech issue. So what gives?

I don’t have any way to know if this is so, but I’ll bet I know about how it went down. With the aforementioned manufactured controversy simmering quite nicely, and Agema conveniently ill-positioned to defend himself against the manufactured outrage, the aforementioned chairwoman of the wooden shoe mafia direct dials her congressman (and don’t think for one second that she doesn’t have his personal phone number prominently placed in her Rolodex). She gets him on the line, and after a brief bit of chit-chat, politely informs her congressman that if he doesn’t join the chorus calling for Agema to step down, then she’s going to funnel five “wilsons” over to his primary challenger; and should the good congressman somehow survive that primary bank drop, then she’s got another five “wilsons” to funnel over to his general opponent.

And if so, then the only way that Justin would bite on that is if his primary race is closer than he wants us to know about, and he knows that those bank drops could make the difference. Just to make a follow up observation, about two weeks later a poll had Amash leading Ellis by a freaking huge margin, but another poll conducted just last week shows a more realistic spread. When compared to the February poll, Amash’s share of the May response dropped by about a third, Ellis’ share about doubled, the undecided expanded by about a quarter, and the split shrank from 48 points to 19 points. Thus, it could be said that Brian Ellis has been quietly gaining ground on Justin Amash over the past four months. Would you like to take a wild guess as to who would rather you didn’t notice that shift, and who wants to make sure you don’t miss it?

Will a seemingly innocent, politically correct action have far-reaching negative consequences? I honestly couldn’t tell you at this juncture. The glaring question of “why” may always be left dangling, especially when there was nothing obvious to gain from giving in to an argumentum ad populum in the first place. I can tell you this, though, that should this come back to bite Justin in the keister in a couple of months, the Third District grassroots will be casting blame in sixteen different directions, but never once step back and consider what they could have done to prevent this to begin with.

Would it have helped if the Third District Republican Committee wasn’t a paper tiger, or if there’d been some sort of tea party campaign fund that could have been used to counterbalance the temptation to betray a fellow tea party movement standard bearer? We may never know. What I suspect I do know is that anyone who dares to suggest what the insurgents refuse to consider will be castigated as a traitor to the movement . . . all for daring either to speak the uncomfortable truth or to ask the uncomfortable questions.

You Betcha! (10)Nuh Uh.(3)

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