TIME Campaign Finance

How Super PACs Are Taking Over

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS
Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images US Senator Ted Cruz( R-TX) smiles at the crowd while delivering remarks announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run for US president March 23, 2015, inside the full Vine Center at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va.

A new breed of high-dollar outside groups is reshaping the 2016 presidential race

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says he no longer listens to classic rock, but he still found a way to channel the lyrics of John Lennon when he launched his presidential campaign. “Imagine,” he told students at Virginia’s Liberty University on March 23, repeating the refrain 38 times in a half-hour stem winder that felt less like a campaign speech than a guided tour of a conservative Valhalla.

The dreamy slogan may have seemed out of whack for the firebrand politician. But in some ways Cruz was just following the lead of an independent group that hopes to make him President.

Weeks before Cruz climbed onstage, the Stand for Principle PAC printed and passed out T-shirts and placards that read “Imagine Ted Cruz as President.” The group’s organizer, Maria Strollo Zack, says helping Cruz promote his message is just the start. Zack wants to raise as much as $50 million—perhaps more than the campaign—to pay for anything from television ads to grassroots outreach. “We’re rewriting the book on how super PACs can be leveraged,” she says.

So are Cruz’s rivals. Likely candidates such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have been deeply involved in setting up their outside-spending vehicles, installing top staff and drawing down funds to pay for early voter contact, including trips to primary states. Such efforts are the latest way to game the traditional campaign-finance system, which limits the amount of money individuals can give to candidates and forbids direct donations from corporations. The Cruz super PAC, for instance, is barred from directly coordinating campaign spending or strategy with Cruz, but it is able to raise and spend unlimited sums on the candidate’s behalf while collecting money from just about anyone.

In 2012 super PACs were used as blunt instruments of destruction: the group backing Mitt Romney devoted about 90% of the $142 million it spent overall to TV attack ads. But in the 2016 presidential race, these organizations are poised to play a much bigger role, taking over more-traditional campaign duties ranging from field organizing and voter turnout to direct mail and digital microtargeting. “They are becoming de facto campaigns,” says Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant who ran former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential super PAC in 2012.

Campaign-finance watchdogs say that super PACs, which were created in the wake of two 2010 court rulings, undermine spending limits that have governed elections for generations and allow high-dollar donors to amass influence that Congress has long sought to prevent. The new crop of super PACs are now pushing boundaries in ways that were unimaginable just five years ago. “The sky’s the limit.” says Carl Forti, a GOP strategist who co-founded the Romney super PAC in 2012.

Many Republican hopefuls have delayed their official campaign announcements so they can spend more time and energy seeding their outside groups. Bush, the former Florida governor, has been dropping in on donors’ conclaves across the Republican Party’s wealthiest precincts, soliciting massive checks for his Right to Rise super PAC. Mike Murphy, Bush’s longtime senior adviser, is expected to stay at the super PAC to orchestrate its strategy rather than migrate to the campaign.

Walker’s high-dollar outside group, Our American Revival, is run by the Wisconsin governor’s future campaign manager, Rick Wiley, who—like Walker’s spokesperson, senior political advisers and key field staff in states like Iowa and New Hampshire—is drawing a salary from the organization until the formal campaign kicks off. Former New York governor George Pataki charged up to $250,000 per head at a fundraiser for his group, We the People Not Washington, which features a form on its website for supporters to request a meeting with Pataki. And as Hillary Clinton marches toward a likely campaign launch, her super-PAC supporters at Ready for Hillary are laying the groundwork by adding to their email rolls and signing up a flurry of new members for the group’s finance council.

Much of this activity exploits a legal loophole. “What’s unique,” says Anthony Corrado, chairman of the board of trustees at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, “is candidates becoming associated with a super PAC before embarking on a campaign.” Building early receptacles for large checks may also limit the amount of time candidates are forced to spend raising money later on.

As the balance of power shifts toward super PACs, the strategists running them are studying the ways outside committees can be more than just attack machines once the campaigns take flight. “Every super PAC will have to decide what their mission should be and how they want to game plan,” says Austin Barbour, who will run former Texas governor Rick Perry’s super PAC if Perry jumps into the race. “But we’re in a post-TV age.” Super PACs will take on a variety of new tasks over the next year, from grassroots organizing and micro-targeting to digital operations. “Those will all be a part of any well-run super PAC this cycle,” predicts a GOP strategist running another likely presidential candidate’s outside group.

The question no one has an answer for yet is how a super PAC’s time and money can dovetail with the campaign’s efforts instead of duplicating them. Since such groups are barred from coordinating strategy with campaigns after the candidates declare, they may struggle to run complementary data or field operations. But campaign-finance watchdogs worry the rules will be flouted because there’s nobody to enforce them. “It’s open season,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who notes that three of the six members of the Federal Election Commission—the agency in charge of overseeing political spending—view money as a form of speech and are ideologically opposed to reining it in. And while the Department of Justice can prosecute violations of campaign-finance law, experts predict they will be wary of doing so except in extreme cases.

Candidates will be able to send strategic cues in public statements that super PACs can pick up on. But campaign strategists say the anything-goes legal landscape could ultimately cause problems for the indiscreet. “Someone’s going to get popped,” one predicts. “The question is who and when.”

After his speech at Liberty, Cruz began a fundraising tour that would whisk him to meetings with New York financiers, Texas investors and other executives. Within 36 hours, he said he had raised more than $1 million for his actual campaign. The cash infusion was overdue: Cruz’s coffers are already dwarfed by those of rivals like Bush. As a federal officeholder, Cruz hasn’t had the same freedom to work with his super PAC.

But the outside group will be there to help him with his stated strategy—to win the nomination by mustering a grassroots army that mixes the Tea Party faithful with the social conservatives who dominate the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. And at the head of the brigade is an old pal: Cruz’s college roommate and debate partner David Panton, a Jamaican-born Atlanta private-equity executive who cut the super PAC its first $100,000 check last November. “I think he should be President,” Panton says. “It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign.”

Zack says the Senator can live on less cash than his rivals but insists that support will be there when he needs it. After all, Stand for Principle can get Cruz himself to juice fundraising by appearing at its events, as long as he does not ask for the money directly. Just imagine the possibilities.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Michael Scherer/Washington

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TIME 2016 Election

How Ted Cruz Plans to Disrupt the GOP Presidential Primary

Ted Cruz
Andrew Harnik—AP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stands on stage while speaking to a crowd gathered to announce his presidential candidacy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23, 2015.

Once again, the firebrand senator is betting that his best shot to win is breaking the old rules

Ted Cruz’s decision to launch his presidential campaign on Monday breaks all the customs of a typical candidate announcement.

Presidential hopefuls tend to kick off the quest for the White House on home turf, after forming an exploratory committee and at the beginning of a new fundraising period, which allows them to maximize the amount of time they can spend raising money before filing their first report. In contrast, the Texas Senator will declare his intentions during a convocation speech at Liberty University in Virginia, forgoing an exploratory committee to formally jump into the race in the final weeks of the first quarter.

Cruz’s move, confirmed in a Twitter message just after midnight Monday ahead of a speech later in the day, may be unconventional. But since arriving in the Senate in 2013, the firebrand Texan has bet that the new way to win in politics is to break the old rules. A freshman Senator is supposed to focus on committee work, forge alliances, sidestep the spotlight. Instead, Cruz led the charge to shut down the government, alienated his Republican colleagues and reveled in the controversy, which vaulted him to conservative superstardom.

This is the context you need to understand how Cruz, the first major GOP candidate to formally launch a bid for the White House, plans to run his presidential campaign. “What I’m trying to do, more than anything else,” he explained last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, “is bring a disruptive app to politics.”

MORE Read TIME‘s 2013 profile of Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Like most of his unorthodox moves, the details of his announcement make some strategic sense. Cruz’s campaign will be based in his hometown of Houston, but it aspires to become national grassroots movement, with the Republican Party’s most conservative voters on its front lines. To win the nomination, Cruz will have to muster an army that combines the Tea Party faithful with the GOP’s social conservative wing and foreign-policy hawks.

That’s where the location of Monday’s announcement comes in. Liberty, a Lynchburg-based school founded by influential pastor Jerry Falwell, is a cradle of Christian conservatism; Cruz also chose it for a major speech last year about religious freedom. The venue is a clear signal that the Senator intends to court the GOP’s evangelical wing, which dominates the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

The timing of the rollout is also logical. As a federal officeholder, he is restricted from coordinating with his super PAC, which limits the benefits of delaying his announcement. Due to the advantages of launching in April—which puts off the requirement of reporting fundraising tallies until mid-July—the political calendar next month is expected to be crowded with campaign announcements from the likes of Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton and others. By jumping in now, Cruz is able to grab the spotlight without rivals around to share it.

He could use the boost. In the early phases of the GOP primary, Cruz has been less a leading man than an afterthought. An average of early Iowa polls shows Cruz running ninth, pulling about 4% of the vote. In the fight to win the hearts of Hawkeye State social conservatives, he faces competition from former caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher.

Indeed, many Republican strategists have dismissed Cruz as a serious contender for the nomination. They argue that his appeal is deep but narrow, confined to the far-right reaches of the party. He is estranged from the Washington establishment and the GOP donor class because of maneuvers such as the government shutdown. Even in Texas, he has to compete for money and influence with former governor Rick Perry’s likely presidential campaign and the deep-rooted Bush network. (Cruz’s advisers plan to raise $40 million to $50 million to compete in the primary, the Chronicle reports.)

The outside groups that helped marshal support for his Senate bid, such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, are unlikely to play the same role in a nominating contest crowded with conservative stars. Like Paul and Rubio, he will have to overcome the challenge of running as a first-term Senator after the GOP has spent the past seven years dismissing Barack Obama as too callow for the job.

But Cruz has always worn the naysaying of Washington Republicans as a badge of honor. He has long believed that he can galvanize the GOP grassroots and run a guerrilla campaign funded by small-dollar checks. As a national strategy, it has precedent in Obama’s own 2008 primary campaign, which Cruz sought to replicate in his one successful political race. “There were two campaigns on which we modeled our campaign for Senate, and they were Obama’s campaign for President in 2008 and Marco Rubio’s campaign for Senate in 2010,” he told TIME in 2013. Cruz studied the Obama blueprint so closely that for Christmas one year, he gave staffers copies of The Audacity to Win, the manual written by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Cruz has assets that could lift him in the primary, including a preacher father with evangelical ties, a day job that offers him a national pulpit and oratorical chops that made him a national debating champion at Princeton. He will run as the race’s one untainted conservative: even in Iowa, he has declined to participate in the quadrennial ethanol pander. “He has the broadest appeal of all the conservative candidates, appealing to Iowa’s evangelicals, tea partyers, and liberty faction without changing anything about who he is,” said Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa talk radio host. “He’s arguably the best soldier the conservative cause has had in recent memory.”

Running as a purist has limits, of course, and GOP critics are confident the presidential primary will expose the flaws in the strategy. Beginning Monday, Cruz will try to prove them wrong once more.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

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TIME 2016 Election

CPAC: 12 Takeaways as the GOP Presidential Race Takes Off

Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME Supporters watch Rand Paul speak at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

Checking the scoreboard on day three

There’s still a straw-poll winner to announce, but the biggest story lines at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference have already unfolded. Here are the 12 big takeaways from the annual gathering:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker kept the momentum alive. Riding a wave of fresh support after his Iowa debut last month, Walker was the talk of the conference and emerged even stronger despite a dustup over his comparing union protesters to ISIS fighters.

The hawkish GOP is back. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has tempered the dovish streak percolating within the party, as speaker after speaker advocated a more muscular approach to fighting the terrorist group.

That could spell trouble for Rand Paul. The Kentucky Senator is still a CPAC favorite and a force in the party, but one of the pillars of his appeal may be eroding.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush can handle the base. In a lively question-and-answer session, Bush found his footing after an uneven start and managed to escape unscathed. “That was raucous and wild,” he told supporters after, “and I loved it.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did what he had to do: convince donors and voters alike that he’s still alive and kicking in the GOP nominating fight. No one was expecting a barn burner from the moderate governor at CPAC, but he showed some familiar fight in a tough interview with radio host Laura Ingraham, peppering his answers with shots at the media and his 2016 opponents.

Republicans haven’t figured out how to prosecute former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s economic priorities. Speaker after speaker tied her to Obama’s foreign policy record, but mentions of her domestic agenda—and President Obama’s—were rare and disjointed.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina had another strong performance, showcasing her willingness to forcefully criticize Clinton. Fiorina has no natural constituency or discernible path to the nomination, but her ability to play Hillary’s foil positions her for success on the debate stage and could lift her to a spot on the veep short list or a Cabinet position if Republicans win the White House.

Moderators matter. The GOP is determined to mitigate the mainstream media’s impact on the nominating process, but CPAC showed that tapping ideologues to quiz the candidates carries its own problems. Fox News personality Sean Hannity served up softballs and cracked wise about former President Bill Clinton’s womanizing, while radio host Laura Ingraham laid bare her own biases by lambasting Bush and pushing Christie to do the same.

Sarah Palin can use her for talents for good. The former Alaska governor has long drawn eye rolls and sighs from Republicans for her fake flirtations with the presidency and outlandish or sometimes incoherent statements. But at CPAC, Palin delivered a substantive, impassioned speech on veterans issues that called on both parties to address the needs of those returning from war.

The First Amendment only goes so far. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson received a First Amendment Award for speaking about his faith. But the bearded reality-TV personality blew through his allotted time limit, uncorking such a long, rambling speech that the CPAC organizers had to cue up music to drive him offstage.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz will run a populist, anti-Washington campaign that juxtaposes his principled stands in the Senate with the waffling of his rivals. That should make him a force in Iowa, but he still hasn’t shown how a zealous base will give him the math needed to win the nomination in this field.

Rick Santorum is the Republican Rodney Dangerfield. The former Pennsylvania Senator carried 11 states in the 2012 nominating contest, finishing second to Mitt Romney. It was an impressive feat—yet he still gets no respect from the base, who filed out of the CPAC ballroom en masse during Santorum’s speech on Friday.

TIME

CPAC: Republicans Rediscover Their Old Hawkish Message On Foreign Policy

Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

The threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria looms large

Rand Paul took the stage like a conquering hero Friday, his shirtsleeves rolled, his regular laconic manner turned fiery. The audience stacked with young libertarians gave him a standing ovation. But Paul, who became the reigning prince of the Conservative Political Action Conference partly by preaching his signature brand of non-interventionist foreign policy, had a new twist in his stump speech.

Paul tamped down his famous skepticism of military adventures, and replaced it with the more conventionally muscular rhetoric of Cold War conservatism. “Without question, we must now defend ourselves and American interests,” he said, in comments about the fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). When it came to the question of federal spending, he added, “for me, the priority is always national defense.”

Paul was hardly the only presumptive presidential candidate to focus on the perils brewing abroad. The annual confab of conservative activists, held this week outside Washington, has showcased the Republican Party’s new embrace of its old hawkish foreign policy. It’s a dramatic shift from recent years, when CPAC has been a forum for the party to air its grievances about the sprawling U.S. surveillance state. But for the past two days, speaker after speaker has sought to demonstrate their steeliness, earning reliable cheers by taunting ISIS and slamming President Obama for seeking a deal with Iran while snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Likely 2016 candidates, from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina, all roused the crowd by promising a tougher brand of foreign policy than the one practiced by Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Former Senator Rick Santorum, the runner-up for the Republican nomination in 2012, called for 10,000 U.S. ground troops in the middle to battle ISIS and urged “bombing them back to the seventh century.”

This view is increasingly popular within the party. A mid-February poll conducted by CBS News found that 72% of Republicans favor sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS militants, an increase of seven percentage points since only October. That leap comes as the issue replaces the brightening economy at the top of newscasts.

According to aides to several candidates, the increased focus on foreign policy in stump speeches reflects increasing public concern as well as the belief among several campaigns that Republicans will have an edge with voters on security issues in a race against Clinton.

“Folks are getting beheaded over there,” says an adviser to one likely candidate. “People are seeing the failure of this president’s foreign policy on TV every day.”

The shifting political winds have heartened the hawkish groups who watched the GOP’s isolationist turn—and Paul’s rise—with alarm. “Rand and his acolytes hoped that if we left the world alone, the world would leave us alone. But experience is a cruel teacher, and beheadings and Iranian nukes focus the mind,” says Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel. “To their credit, many of the conservatives who flirted with the Rand and Obama foreign policy are changing their minds after seeing what happens when America withdraws from the world.”

The view was a popular one at an event that is a revealing—if imperfect—glimpse of the GOP’s current zeitgeist. “National security issues must be at the center of the 2016 presidential debate,” former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton declared onstage, and it seemed few of his potential rivals for the nomination disagreed.

Fiorina blistered Obama and Clinton for dithering: “While you seek moral equivalence,” she said, “the world waits for moral clarity and American leadership.” Walker, who has risen in the early primary polls by positioning himself as a conservative fighter, suggested he would take an aggressive stance on foreign policy. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” Walker said. (A spokeswoman for Walker’s political-action committee later clarified that the governor was “in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS.”)

But it was Paul, who was most notable for having freshened his message. Back in 2011, he came to CPAC to call for cuts in military spending. “If you refuse to acknowledge that there’s any waste can be culled from the military budget, you are a big-government conservative and can you not lay claim to balancing the budget,” he said. This year he claimed “a foreign policy that encourages stability, not chaos.” His many fans here say they still believe his more restrained approach will bear political fruit. Daniel Jenkins, a 28-year old Iraq veteran and Paul supporter at Charlotte School of Law, says the senator’s foreign policy will have broad appeal in the general election. “It may not be the strongest point here among these conservatives,” Jenkins says, “but I think with Independents and in the big picture, it’ll catch on.”

CPAC is still Paul’s crowd, rippling with the young libertarians who form a cornerstone of his base. And the two-time defending champ of CPAC’s symbolic straw poll is likely to make it a three-peat when the event wraps up Saturday evening. But the annual confab has also signaled the challenges that lie ahead for the Kentucky Republican.

With reporting by Sam Frizell

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TIME 2016 Election

Four Things to Watch for at CPAC This Year

CPAC Mark Peterson Candidates
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME A reporters asks CPAC attendees to pick their favorite candidate, in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

The annual confab offers a good look at the grassroots zeitgeist

The conservative grassroots will gather by the thousands just outside of Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the annual ritual known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Part political rally, part marketing bonanza and part youth bacchanal, the event is one of the few in which the far-flung factions of the party come together for a three-day blitz of speeches, panels and policy sessions.

For movement outsiders and American voters, the conference offers a compressed glimpse of the conservative zeitgeist, and a platform for the party’s presidential candidates to rouse the faithful in the coming campaign. Here are four story lines to watch as the event kicks off:

How will Chris Christie and Jeb Bush be received?
The party’s two establishment-backed candidates have been warmly received at CPAC before, but the knives may come out now that their all-but-certain presidential campaigns have attracted the money and muscle of the Acela corridor elites that the grassroots distrusts.

Both candidates will be interviewed by conservative broadcast personalities — Bush by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and Christie by radio host Laura Ingraham. Bush is out to show that the “moderate” moniker he’s been tagged with by opponents is inaccurate, and will try to steer the conversation to the conservative record he compiled as the two-term governor of Florida. Christie, meanwhile, will have to defuse questions over his temperament while addressing his complicated fiscal record in his state.

How has the media onslaught affected Scott Walker?
In recent weeks, the Wisconsin governor has been embroiled in a controversy over President Obama’s patriotism and faith, but the media-driven debate may only have bolstered his standing with the conservative grassroots. Walker’s well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January propelled him to the top of the (largely meaningless) early primary polls. Can he summon the same magic far from the heartland? Another strong showing would help shore up Walker’s support as he battles establishment competitors in the race to vacuum up the party’s top bundlers and operatives. A weak showing would reinforce the emerging narrative that the Wisconsinite may not be ready for gauntlet of a national campaign.

Where is the party on foreign policy?
The GOP’s isolationist and neocon wings will share the same stage this weekend, as Congress debates a war resolution against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as well as President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. A public spat between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before his visit to Capitol Hill next week is likely to be a topic that plenty of speakers touch upon.

Who will win the straw poll?
The conference is capped by a candidate straw poll, which for two years running has been captured by Kentucky Senator and presumptive presidential candidate Rand Paul, who tends to play well among younger activists. The results have never augured much, given that candidates can stack the halls with their supporters by hawking discount tickets (which are required to vote) and swag giveaways. But even if imperfect, it’s still a measure for gauging who’s rallying the right.

TIME 2016 Election

The One-Man Las Vegas Presidential Primary

Chairman & CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., Sheldon Adelson speaks at the Exclusive Seminar: Keynote at the 14th Annual Global Gaming Expo at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on Oct. 1, 2014 in Las Vegas.
Denise Truscello—Getty Images for Global Gaming Expo Chairman & CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., Sheldon Adelson speaks at the Exclusive Seminar: Keynote at the 14th Annual Global Gaming Expo at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on Oct. 1, 2014 in Las Vegas.

Even longshot candidates are lining up for billionaire Sheldon Adelson's support.

Only politicians with ambition or an agenda choose to trudge through the snows of New Hampshire in the depths of winter. George Pataki has been there five times in recent months, and he isn’t playing coy about the purpose of all these visits. “I have no doubt in my mind,” Pataki said in one of several interviews touting his interest in the presidency, “that I have the ability to run this country.”

Pataki is not likely to get the chance to prove that. Eight years out of office, the former New York governor belongs to a vanishing breed of moderate northeastern Republican. He has supported gun control and abortion rights. He has little national name recognition, less money and zero campaign infrastructure in place.

Pataki publicly flirted with a White House bid in 2008 and 2012, and it’s tempting to interpret his revived interest as a financial gambit. Parlaying the publicity of a campaign into a lucrative gig has become one of the ignominious traditions of presidential politics. But Pataki is serious about running, says spokesman David Catalfamo. And while he has little chance of contending in a crowded Republican field, he does have a connection that could make him a factor.

From 2013 until the end of last year, Pataki was a paid spokesman for a Washington-based advocacy group called the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling. The organization, formed and funded by the Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is part of Adelson’s hefty wager that a national online-gambling ban would benefit his brick-and-mortar casinos, which include the Venetian and the Palazzo on the Vegas strip.

For Pataki, who supported many forms of legalized gambling as governor, an alliance with Adelson could prove lucrative as well. The evolution of campaign-finance laws have created a system in which a single benefactor is capable of sustaining a lean presidential campaign for long enough to grab the national spotlight. Wyoming businessman Foster Friess kept Rick Santorum afloat for long stretches in 2012, while Adelson—the single biggest donor of that campaign—forked over enough money to let Newt Gingrich spend months traveling the country to torture Mitt Romney.

Adelson has no plans to match the $150 million or more he shelled out four years ago, according to a source close to him. But is still expected to spend in support of his signature issues. A hawkish foreign policy devoted to the security of Israel remains his chief concern. But he has also lavished cash on Republican candidates and committees amid his push for a national Internet-gambling ban.

Pataki isn’t the only surprise candidate in the Adelson primary. Take Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina who is also publicly weighing a long-shot campaign for the GOP nomination. In March, Graham introduced a bill in the Senate that would effectively impose a national Internet-gambling ban. Graham will reintroduce the same measure this Congress, says communications director Kevin Bishop.

Graham calls online gambling a threat to public safety. “I think people in the criminal world and terrorist world could get a benefit from it,” he told TIME. But pushing the ban has also paid off for the South Carolina Senator, who reaped at least $31,200 in 2013 from Adelson, his wife and two daughters, according to public data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

The Adelson derby isn’t just for the also-rans. Last spring, a slew of top-tier GOP presidential hopefuls, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Scott Walker, made pilgrimages to Las Vegas to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference. It isn’t likely that Adelson will shower cash on a single favorite in 2016, as he did with Gingrich four years ago, but he’s willing to crack open his wallet to keep his issues at the forefront of the debate—and to make life difficult for candidates who don’t see eye to eye with him.

If support for Israel is Republican orthodoxy, gambling is more complicated. It is a rare issue that splits the GOP, pitting religious conservatives against states’-rights activists and libertarians. The prominent anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist told TIME in an interview that Congress should reject a national ban and let states decide the issue. “You don’t want the federal government coming in,” he says.

Adelson says he opposes online gaming on moral grounds. “ You would think the chairman of the world’s largest gaming company would pursue any aspect of gaming which could increase profits, right?” he wrote in an op-ed for Forbes in 2013. “Ordinarily that is true—but online gambling is ‘fool’s gold.’ Whether it is full casino gaming, poker only, or anything in between—this is a societal train wreck waiting to happen.”

That’s all a bit rich: from at least 2001 to 2007, Adelson’s company pursued the possibility of developing its own gaming website before abandoning the idea. And while it’s unclear whether Graham’s bill can pass Congress, Adelson is still changing the debate through donations to old allies and potential new ones. In 2014, he shelled out the individual limit of $2,600 to nearly every successful Senate Republican challenger, including Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner, Tom Cotton, Dan Sullivan, David Perdue and Bill Cassidy, according to CQ Moneyline.

And sometimes he wields his influence in unseen ways. Late last year, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi circulated a letter to colleagues protesting Graham’s online gambling bill. Wicker, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argued a national ban would give the federal government regulatory powers that are reserved for the states. “We believe that a bill that encroaches on the long-standing authority of states to decide issues related to gaming is not the answer,” says the Dec. 3 letter, a copy of which was obtained by TIME.

The push was dropped, an aide to Wicker says, when it became clear the bill wouldn’t pass. But it also had the potential to strain relations with Adelson, who gave $13.2 million—more than any other GOP-aligned donor according to Politico—to help the party snag the Senate majority in 2014.

Pataki thinks he may have the background to whet Adelson’s appetite. The former three-term governor was running Albany during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is “ardently opposed to the President’s leading from behind strategy on foreign policy,” says spokesman Catalfamo. And Adelson isn’t the only potential benefactor with whom he rubs elbows. “He’s very friendly and has long relationship with a lot of folks who are billionaires,” says Catalfamo, including the billionaire Koch brothers and various Wall Street titans.

“People don’t remember who I am,” Pataki presidential told the conservative website Newsmax this month, “but we can remind them.” He certainly has a friend with the money to help.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2016 Election

Jeb Bush Pitches Conservatism for the Middle Class

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Economic Club of Detroit meeting in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2015.
Paul Sancya—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Economic Club of Detroit meeting in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2015.

The former governor road-tests a message of upward mobility ahead of 2016

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered a glimpse Wednesday of the economic message at the core of his likely presidential bid, using the maiden policy speech of his unofficial 2016 campaign to sketch out how conservative policies can restore the prospect of upward mobility for the struggling American middle class.

“Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin. And many more feel like they’re stuck in place, working longer and harder, even as they’re losing ground,” Bush said in Detroit. “Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges. The opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time.

“I will offer a new vision. A plan of action that is different than what we have been hearing in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said. “It is a vision rooted in conservative principles and tethered to our shared belief in opportunity and the unknown possibilities of a nation given the freedom to act, to create, to dream and to rise.”

MORE: Measles Vaccinations Roil Republican Presidential Race

The address marks a new phase of campaign preparations for Bush, an early front-runner for the Republican nomination. Since announcing in mid-December that he would explore the possibility of a run for the White House, Bush has focused aggressively on locking up institutional support among the party’s elite donors and operatives. And while he has enjoyed swift success courting party bigwigs in private, the breadth of his public appeal is a question mark eight years after he left the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.

Unlike the rest of the still gelling Republican field, Bush has eschewed candidate cattle calls in early primary states like Iowa. So his appearance here Wednesday, before more than 500 people at the Detroit Economic Club, was the first major showcase of the themes that would underpin his campaign. Standing at the front of a full ballroom nestled against the Detroit River, Bush laid out the broad strokes of a policy agenda that he argued would promote economic growth, lift the middle class and trim the size of the federal government while shifting power to the states.

“In the coming months, I intend to detail how we can get there,” he said, “with a mix of smart policies and reforms to tap our resources and capacity to innovate, whether in energy, manufacturing, health care or technology.”

Income inequality has become one of the 2016 race’s signature issues for both parties, and several of Bush’s competitors have made the theme a pillar of their pitches to voters. But the decision to road-test the message of economic mobility in the Democratic stronghold of Detroit was a signal that Bush intends to compete in the urban areas the GOP has largely ceded in recent decades as a lost cause. The Motor City has been battered in recent years by depopulation, bad governance and the cratering auto industry. “Look around this city,” Bush said. “In its history is a warning to all of us.”

“I know some in the media think conservatives don’t care about the cities. But they’re wrong,” Bush said. “We believe that every American in every community has a right to pursue happiness. They have a right to rise. So I say let’s go where our ideas can matter most. Where the failures of liberal government policies are the most obvious. Let’s deliver real conservative success.

“And you know what will happen?” he added. “We’ll create a whole lot of new conservatives.”

MORE: Mitt Romney Abandons 2016 Presidential Race

That word conservative was on his lips a lot during a 22-minute speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session. The label looms large over Bush’s efforts to reintroduce himself to voters as the Republican primary field takes shape. Though he compiled a staunchly conservative record as governor, Bush’s support for immigration reform and the Common Core education standards — both anathema to swaths of the party’s hard-right grassroots — have led conservative critics and many pundits to argue he is too moderate for a party that has drifted right in the years since he left office.

Bush mixed in jabs at liberal mismanagement and took a whack at the”reckless” cronyism of Washington. He also took a series of shots at President Obama, including criticism of his recent proposal to tax 529 college-savings plans. But the optimistic speech — “this is the greatest time to be alive as Americans,” Bush said — was aimed at center-right and swing voters rather than the fervent conservatives who are a fixture of the GOP nominating process.

A senior adviser said Bush would not pander in an attempt to appeal to narrow segments of the base, nor pull punches on issues, like his belief in immigration reform, where his views are controversial within the party. During the question-and-answer session, Bush laid out his thinking on immigration reform in greater detail than most of the rest of his prepared speech, and drew a round of applause.

He made a tentative pledge to rise above the fray when the primary campaign season turns combative. “As the old order has been disrupted, it’s been replaced by a little more of a Wild West process,” he said, adding that he hoped he had the discipline not to “get into the food fights.”

The former governor also offered a preview of his thinking about how his family’s political legacy would figure into the campaign. “My dad is the greatest man alive,” Bush said, “and I love my brother.”

Being the son and brother of Presidents is an “interesting challenge,” Bush said, noting that if he decides to run, “I would have to deal this, and turn this fact into an opportunity, to share who I am, to connect on a human level.”

TIME 2016 Election

Romney ‘Seriously Considering’ 2016 Bid With Focus On Poverty

Mitt Romney is seen in attendance as Charlie Baker was sworn in as the governor of Massachusetts at a ceremony inside the House Chamber at the State House on Jan. 8, 2015 in Boston.
John Tlumacki—Boston Globe/Getty Images Mitt Romney is seen in attendance as Charlie Baker was sworn in as the governor of Massachusetts at a ceremony inside the House Chamber at the State House on Jan. 8, 2015 in Boston.

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sought to cast himself as a champion of the nation’s poor Friday, as he announced he is giving a third presidential campaign “serious consideration.”

Addressing the GOP’s elite at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee aboard the U.S.S. Midway, Romney premiered a brand new stump speech, laying out the themes of his proto-campaign and for the party in the “post-Obama era.”

“First, we have to make the world safer,” Romney said. “Second, we have to make sure and provide opportunity for all Americans regardless of the neighborhood they live in. And finally, we have to lift people out of poverty. If we communicate those three things effectively, the American people are going to be with us—be with our nominee and with our candidates across the country.”

Romney received a warm welcome from the members of the RNC in his first appearance with them since his Nov. 2012 loss to President Barack Obama. “It’s nice to appear with friends like this, I gotta tell ya,” he said over the clamor of applause as he took the stage.

In strikingly personal terms for the famously wooden candidate, Romney spoke about his service as a “pastor” in the Mormon Church helping the poor, saying of his wife, Ann, “She’s seen me work with people who are very poor to help them get help.” Romney aides said that should he formally announce he would be more comfortable showing his warmer private persona in public.

“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before,” Romney said. “People want to see rising wages, and they deserve them,” he added.

He argued that conservative principles would best address the problem.

“The only policies that will reach into the hearts of American people and pull people out of poverty and break the cycle of poverty are Republican principles, conservative principles. They include family formation, and education and good jobs and we’re going to bring them to the American people and finally end the scourge of poverty in this great land.”

The focus on poverty reflected a significant change of tune for Romney, a multimillionaire private equity executive who famously told a group of donors that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him because they are dependent on government and “believe that they are victims.” Romney’s 2012 campaign even prevented his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, from incorporating a discussion of poverty into his stump speech.

But Romney continued to echo his infamous line, as well as his assertion after the election that Obama won in 2012 because he gave “gifts” to minority voters, saying of Democrats, “Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done.”

Romney, who believes his 2012 critiques of the Obama foreign policy have been vindicated, sharply criticized the president’s handling of global crises and geopolitical threats. “The world is not safer six years after Barack Obama has been in office,” he said, referencing last week’s terrorist attacks in France, Nigeria, and Yemen. “Terrorism is not on the run.”

Romney indicated that his wife is on board with a potential third campaign. “She believes that people get better with experience, and heaven knows I have experience running for president,” he quipped, adding, “Me, I’m giving some serious consideration to the future.”

Romney said regardless of his decision, he would work to support the Republican Party’s nominee in 2016.

In his introduction, RNC Chair Reince Priebus effusively praised Romney in his introduction, crediting him for his help for GOP candidates in 2014.

“Governor Romney was the man over these last two years,” Priebus said. “I just want to thank him for all of the work that he did, beside the life-changing experience of being the nominee, Mitt Romney was a person who spent the next two years helping our party, helping our party rebuild, and helping our party grow.”

But Romney, who faced a skeptical, if friendly audience, did not put an end to doubts that his candidacy would be in the party’s best interests.

“We heard some new themes tonight from Governor Romney, but we heard many other candidates’ new themes this week,” said South Carolina Chairman Matt Moore. “What’s clear is that this primary is going to be seriously competitive—whether Governor Romney gets in, or not.”

“I think he was talking about supporting the team,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, discounting Romney’s talk that he’s seriously considering a bid. “Obviously he’s doing a trip around to ask people whether they think he should be the candidate, but the important thing:, he made a strong commitment to the RNC here tonight that regardless of the outcome he’d be supporting the nominee.”

Issa would not say whether he thought Romney should launch a third bid for the White House.

TIME 2016 Election

Republicans Re-Elect Party Chair for ‘Do or Die’ 2016 Campaign

Reince Priebus
Steven Senne—AP Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus addresses an audience at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Boston.

Reince Priebus overwhelmingly elected to third term at party helm

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was overwhelmingly re-elected to a third term at the party’s helm Friday, in a show of support for his strategy to assist Republicans in retaking the White House.

Priebus, the only nominee for the post, said the next two years are “a do or die moment” for the GOP, warning of an existential crisis should a Republican not retake the White House. Only two of the 168 committee-members voted against him.

“What this means is that it is a do or die moment for our party,” he said. “If we don’t win in 2016, I have a terrible feeling the national party doesn’t exist in the same way that it is today.”

Priebus has overseen the party during a period of diminishing importance as super PACs have strengthened the power of outside groups. But he has focused its efforts on rebuilding the GOP’s data and field programs in an effort to create a permanent GOP campaign on par with Democratic efforts.

“It is an honor and it is also a huge responsibility for me to finish the chapter here in rebuilding the Republican National Committee,” Priebus told reporters. “I think that winning a third term means I have a massive responsibility to rebuild our party, to put our nominee in the best position possible and not repeat the same result that happened in 2012.”

In 2011, Priebus took over a party laden with debt and drama, and has led the GOP to record financial success. But his electoral record is mixed, having overseen both the failed effort to recapture the White House in 2012, as well as last year’s Republican wave.

TIME 2016 Election

First Republican Presidential Debate Will Be in August

Wolf Blitzer
Paul Sancya—ASSOCIATED PRESS CNN's Wolf Blitzer speaks to the audience at the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Get ready: The first Republican primary debate is just eight months away, the Republican National Committee announced Friday, along with the calendar for the first nine debates of the 2016 cycle.

Republican candidates participated in more than 20 debates in the 2012 election cycle, which the national party credited with weakening eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney. After conversations with media partners and candidates, the party announced that it has decided on 12 debates for the 2016 cycle, the first in August in Ohio, likely in Cleveland, where the party will host its national convention on July 18-21, 2016.

After the first debate, the RNC is planning on one debate each month through January. After the Iowa Caucuses, the RNC plans for three more debates in February, with two more in March.

“This schedule ensures we will have a robust discussion among our candidates while also allowing the candidates to focus their time engaging with Republican voters,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “It is exciting that Republicans will have such a large bench of candidates to choose from, and the sanctioned debate process ensures voters will have a chance to gain a chance to hear them.”

Under RNC rules adopted last year, Republican candidates will only be allowed to participate in the RNC-sanctioned debates if they forswear attending unsanctioned ones, ensuring there won’t be a repeat of the 2012 process.

RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer, who has coordinated the effort for the RNC, said precise dates for the debates will be announced in due time, once negotiations with venues are completed. Spicer said that Republican candidates have been “huge champions” of the effort to curtail the frequency of debates, which require candidates to take time off the trail fundraising and meeting voters in order to prepare.

Spicer said the networks will have final say on the eligibility criteria for each debate, expected to be key factor with an expected crowded field of candidates, but said that the RNC stressed that the viability threshold for later debates will be tougher than those earlier in the process.

Spicer told reporters there would be conservative media partners and panelists for the debates, but said networks would retain editorial control over them. He wouldn’t say whether conservative media participation was a prerequisite for hosting a debate, but said it was always the plan that an “element of conservatism be brought into these debates in some shape or form.”

The schedule:

1. Fox News: August 2015, Ohio

2. CNN: September 2015, California

3. CNBC: October 2015, Colorado

4. Fox Business: November 2015, Wisconsin

5. CNN: December 2015, Nevada

6. Fox News: January 2016, Iowa

7. ABC News: February 2016, New Hampshire

8. CBS News: February 2016, South Carolina

9. NBC/Telemundo: February 2016, Florida

Pending

10. Fox News: March 2016

11. CNN: March 2016

12: Conservative Media Debate: TBD

 

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