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The GOP’s billionaires’ primary

All the GOP candidates want billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson’s backing.
All the GOP candidates want billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson’s backing. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The news that delivered the biggest jolt to the 2016 presidential campaign this week wasn’t anything the candidates said or did.

It was an offhand comment from a billionaire, David H. Koch, at a dinner of wealthy Republicans in New York.

“Scott Walker is terrific,” Koch told a reporter for the New York Observer. “He’s a tremendous candidate.”

The New York Times reported that Koch was essentially endorsing the Wisconsin governor in the GOP race. It sounded as if the Koch primary, in which Republicans compete to unlock billions of dollars from a network of conservative donors, was over.

Until Koch walked it back, that is. “I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time,” he said. Koch says he and his brother, Charles G. Koch, still intend to remain neutral in the GOP primaries – although they do intend to summon candidates to a round of auditions this summer.

That’s where the action is right now in the not-very-majestic process by which we are choosing our next president. The most important players aren’t the candidates; they’re the mega-donors. In American politics, money talks.

That’s always been true, of course. But this year, we’re reaching new lows: The Republican race has devolved into a battle among headstrong billionaires, each with a pet candidate.

David Koch, whose family made its money in coal, has Walker. Norman Braman, who owns 23 car dealerships, has Marco Rubio. Robert Mercer, a New York hedge fund manager, has Ted Cruz.

The biggest mega-donor of them all, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, is still playing hard to get. All the candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are courting him.

There’s something grotesque about a process that requires serious politicians to hover around a few donors who can make or break a campaign at whim.

And no, this isn’t a rant about the Republican Party. I have no doubt that plenty of Democratic candidates would do the same thing. It just happens that there’s not much of a contest yet on the Democratic side this year – but a wide-open race on the GOP side, and that has brought the .01 percent out to play.

Campaign finance reform has historically been a low priority for most Americans. When the Pew Research Center asked voters in 2012 to rank their concerns, campaign finance was near the bottom.

This year could be different. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says public alarm is rising, and he’s advised candidates to put reform on their list of promises (as Clinton did last week).

It’s too late for significant changes this cycle. A constitutional amendment to reimpose contribution limits would take years to pass. Democrats have proposed legislation to increase disclosure and provide federal matching funds for small donations, but their bills have stalled. Republicans have said they’d support more disclosure if all contribution limits were abolished, but that proposal isn’t moving either.

If, however, voters demand change, it’s just possible that 2016 could be remembered as the year the tide of money crested. Meanwhile, maybe instead of debates among the candidates, let’s go straight to the top – and ask for debates among their donors instead.

Email Doyle McManus at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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