Despite Reduced Campaign Donations, Mercers Show Interest In Kelli Ward

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2021 - 1:04pm
Updated: Wednesday, January 27, 2021 - 1:47pm

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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case in January of 2010 has had an enormous impact on campaign spending in U.S. elections. Since then, we've seen greater influence from independent groups and wealthy individuals supporting candidates or issues. Two of those individuals are Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, and they're credited with giving then-candidate Donald Trump a major financial boost when other donors were more cautious. And though there have been reports about the Mercers pulling back on contributions in last year's election, a recent report in the Intercept indicates they are fans of Arizona's Republican Party chair, Kelli Ward. Matthew Cunningham-Cook wrote the story, and he's with me. So, Matthew, the Mercers are very influential in conservative media, right?

MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah, the Mercers fund Parler. They fund Breitbart. They fund the Federalist Society, which has fundamentally reshaped the judiciary over the last few years, especially. Their fingers are in as many kind of far-right pies as you can imagine. And that's a testament to their vast wealth, but also their ideological commitment to an idea of the America that I think most Americans would find — including most Trump voters would find absolutely abhorrent. An America without labor protections, without civil rights laws, without voting rights laws, without campaign finance laws. That's the type of America that Robert Mercer and Rebekah Mercer fundamentally believe in. And opinion polls show that those views are shared by at most 10% of the voting public of the population and that the other 90% are absolutely opposed to that vision. But because of this vast wealth that they've accumulated by moving around numbers in a spreadsheet, they're able to inflict this political vision on the rest of us. And really, this assault and attempted coup at the Capitol is the culmination of that. Ali Alexander, who founded Stop the Steal, has long connections dating back to 2014 to the Mercer family. Kelli Ward, the chairman of your Arizona Republican party, the Mercers are her largest donor and her super PAC supporting her in 2016 and in 2018.

Kelli Ward
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Kelli Ward

GOLDSTEIN: You mentioned Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona GOP. She recently led the party to censure Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, along with former Sen. Jeff Flake, who had been, as we know, one of President Trump's favorite punching bags, and then Gov. Doug Ducey as well. So having reported this piece, what does that say to you about the Mercers' approach? When they're supporting Kelli Ward financially and she's supporting censure of people associated with the late Sen. McCain and others who either spoke out for Joe Biden or didn't, in their perception, get behind President Trump enough?

CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things that binds this all together is the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which overturned large portions of John McCain's signature legislative achievement that ironically paved the way for his loss in the 2008 elections by Obama being able to mobilize small-dollar donors against Hillary Clinton. And in turn, he was a much stronger general election candidate than Clinton would have been against John McCain. And that Citizens United decision has unleashed the Mercer family onto our political scene. So yeah, I think that that's a big component of, is that what John McCain represented, at least especially on the campaign finance front, was a Republican who understood that at the very least, that politicians should be accountable to the people who voted for them and not to extremely large donors. That's not what Robert Mercer or Rebekah Mercer believe at all.

GOLDSTEIN: And as you mentioned, obviously Citizens United was a Supreme Court decision. So this couldn't be something that would change overnight with a new Biden administration. But is there thinking that there will be a bipartisan effort potentially with a Biden Department of Justice to look more deeply into the funding sources of Stop the Steal, knowing that that can't stop Citizens United, but could it somehow silence, to some extent, or at least put more regulations in place against folks like the Mercers?

CUNNINGHAM-COOK: I mean, I think that H.R. 1, which passed the House in 2019 — a broad-based campaign finance reform — would be a really important step in the right direction, both on ethics and on campaign finance. And it's definitely feasible that H.R. 1 could pass even without bipartisan support in the next Congress. I think, you know, again, the Pandora's box, that Citizens United has opened up is that there's huge Democratic party dark money groups as well. And the issue confronting a Biden Justice Department is that investigating the Mercers would almost certainly ultimately involve investigating all dark money groups and the way that they corrode American democracy. And that includes a lot of Democratic party dark money groups as well. So that's why it kind of underscores the real importance not just of investigations, but of a broad-based structural reform of our democracy to reduce the influence of large donors overall.

GOLDSTEIN: Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a reporter for the Intercept. 

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