Plutocrats still reign: Why Scott Walker's withdrawal is no defeat for super PACs & the Kochs

The erstwhile favorite of right-wing medadonors flops. Does that prove money doesn't matter? Not even close

Published September 23, 2015 9:27PM (EDT)

Scott Walker, David Koch   (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)
Scott Walker, David Koch (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)

Amid sagging fundraising and dismal poll numbers, Scott Walker ended his presidential run on Monday. Despite being an early favorite and a onetime darling among the GOP’s billionaire donor class, Walker was never able to gain any traction with conservative voters. There are several reasons why Walker’s campaign tanked. To begin with, he was a terrible candidate whose lack of charisma was matched only by Jeb Bush. And his record in Wisconsin, contrary to his campaign narrative, was as bad as any governor in the country, with the possible exceptions of Bobby Jindal (who, against all reason and common sense, is still campaigning) and Sam Brownback.

Walker was also plagued by his excessive reliance on super PAC funds. As it turns out, super PACs are incredibly helpful but there are certain limits on what they can do. They can’t, for instance, pay for campaign staffers or airfares or rent fees. The primary utility of super PACs is that they help candidates flood the airwaves with commercials (read: propaganda) – and that matters late in campaigns. But early in the campaign, when grassroots organizing is essential, candidates need hard money to stay afloat. Having flopped in both of the presidential debates, Walker couldn’t generate enough buzz to sustain his campaign.

Walker’s demise has given rise to a host of wrong-headed analyses on the role of money in politics. Commentators are concluding (or at the very least suggesting) that Walker’s collapse shows how unimportant big money is in the broader political process. Tory Newmyer, in a piece for Fortune, writes that “Walker’s most important gift to his rivals may be a cautionary tale. He becomes the second candidate in this cycle (after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry) to flame out despite a heavily funded outside group. In a campaign once shaping up as a big-money scramble, the primacy of grassroots appeal is proving surprisingly durable.” A New York Times article similarly noted that “In a campaign that has already upended assumptions about the power of dynasties and the limits of celebrity candidates, Mr. Walker’s decline and fall hint at the systemic dangers of the super-PAC driven financial model on which virtually the entire Republican field has staked its chances.”

To be fair, the authors of these pieces don’t explicitly deny the primacy of money in the political process. They do, however, overlook the fact that billionaires like the Koch brothers will continue to dominate the process, with or without Walker. A quick glance at the data on campaign fundraising shows that, no matter who wins, the millionaire and billionaire class will still have a disproportionate influence on the election.

Virtually every presidential candidate, with the exception of Bernie Sanders (the only authentic populist running), is receiving most of their support through super PAC donations -- often well over $100,000 and many over $1 million. The rich people perverting our political process are smart enough to hedge their bets, in other words. The Koch brothers may have preferred Walker, but, like Wall Street banks, they’ll spread their money around so that the candidate who ultimately wins will owe them something. When the race begins to tighten and the winners become more apparent, the big money donors will dump their resources into the campaign coffers of the Republican candidate, whoever that happens to be. And if it’s anyone other than Sanders on the Democratic side, they’ll do the same. The 1 percent wants a Republican in office, but they’ll spend enough money on a Democrat to ensure they don’t lose completely.

The larger point is that the plutocracy is alive and well in America. Scott Walker’s botched campaign doesn’t change that. At the end of the day, a few billionaires will still go a long way in determining who wins the election. And because of our obscene campaign finance system, no matter who wins the presidential election, those same billionaires will still set the policy agenda in ways other Americans can’t.

While it’s encouraging that the Koch brothers can’t handpick the specific candidate they want, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that their influence on the process remains profoundly undemocratic.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

MORE FROM Sean Illing

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Campaign Finance Money In Politics Plutocracy Scott Walker Super Pacs