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Influence of wealthy donors becoming an issue in GOP primaries

The unprecedented flood of outside cash flowing into the presidential race is becoming an issue even in the GOP primaries.

As far as political truisms go, the notion that money is corrupting politics is about as banal as it gets. But the unprecedented scale of cash flowing into outside groups this cycle as a result of the 2010 Citizens United decision – much of it anonymous -- is becoming impossible to ignore, even within a Republican field that typically favors a far laxer set of contribution limits than their Democratic counterparts.

Last week’s GOP presidential debate raised the issue in dramatic fashion as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul groused that Donald Trump “buys and sells politicians of all stripes.” Rather than deny the charge, Trump argued his outsized influence proved the status quo is itself corrupt.

Related: Ted Cruz's billionaire hedge fund backer emerges as top 2016 donor

“I will tell you that our system is broken,” the celebrity real estate mogul said. “I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

The exchange hit a nerve with some Republicans, who rarely see campaign finance issues raised by their own candidates.

“You see these others who have millions from three or four donors,” conservative activist Cindy Lamar, 62, told msnbc at last week’s RedState Gathering. “No one else has the money to do what Trump does, of course, but I like that he takes on big money candidates.”

Growing concern on right

Trump isn’t the only Republican to raise the issue recently. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who ran for president in 2012 with heavy backing from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, told Politico this month that he was concerned large donors were playing bigger and bigger roles in campaigns in the post-Citizens United landscape.

“I think it's very frightening,” Gingrich said. “I don't think the Founding Fathers intended for the U.S. to be an oligarchy.”

Unlimited money groups played a major role in 2012, but in 2016 they’ve arguably eclipsed the campaigns themselves, which continue to face strict limits on contributions. Campaigns can accept no more than $2,700 per person in the primary and $2,700 in the general, a fraction of what many wealthy donors can contribute. 

Super PACs supporting Jeb Bush raised more than $108 million as of June 30, dwarfing the $11.4 million in donations the former Florida governor raised for his campaign. Similar groups collected $38 million for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, $20 million for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and $17 million for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton raised $20 million from outside groups.  

Most of the money came from a small cadre of ultra-wealthy backers who often donated more than $1 million at a time. While outside groups are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates once they announce, they’re starting to take on more jobs typically handled by campaigns, such as polling and voter outreach.

Polls indicate that voters of all political stripes are worried. One recent CBS/New York Times survey found that 84% of Americans believe there’s too much money in politics and 77% wanted to place new limits on contributions from wealthy donors.

“Republicans are beginning to talk about this,” Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Every Voice Center, a group that seeks restrictions on donations, told msnbc. “Democrats have talked about the issue in the campaign before and the question has always been which solutions they’d go forward with.” 

Campaign finance advocacy groups tend to be dominated by progressive activists, but some on the right are trying to turn Republican attention to the issue as well while advocating different solutions.Take Back Our Republic, established in 2015, is an organization founded to encourage conservatives to propose their own policy ideas such as tax credits for small donors, disclosure requirements for “dark money” groups that take anonymous dollars, and new measures to detect illegal foreign donations.

“We really see it from that perspective of the grassroots sometimes not feeling like they have enough of a voice,” Take Back CEO John Pudner, who managed Republican Rep. Dave Brat’s upset primary against Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told msnbc. “I think it’s true on the conservative and the progressive side.”

Partisan split on solutions

On the Democratic side of the presidential field, candidates have pledged to address the issue by passing a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United in order to put in place new limits on the size of donations. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and her leading rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have said they’d make the issue a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees as well.

One Republican candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, has also come out for a Constitutional Amendment. Harvard professor and activist Lawrence Lessig is considering running for the Democratic nomination with a pledge that he would sign a bill that includes public financing of elections and then resign.

Republican candidates rarely bring up campaign finance issues, but have tried to rile up voters in their own ways around corruption concerns. Jeb Bush has proposed new limits on lawmakers’ ability to lobby after leaving office, for example. 

A number of candidates, including Bush, Paul, and Cruz, have railed against “crony capitalism” that they complain tilts government towards corporate welfare. These issues on the GOP side hint at anger over money at politics, but largely ignore the diamond-encrusted elephant in the room of campaign donations themselves.

Republican candidates argue well-funded interests are rigging the rules to get their way in Washington, for example by forcing renewal of the Export-Import Bank, without addressing the obvious question of whether multi-million dollar donations might help them do so. 

Various conservatives have insinuated, with weak evidence, that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced Clinton’s work as secretary of state. But if donating to an anodyne charity with bipartisan backing creates a conflict of interest, then what should voters think when, say, a single businessman can donate $10 million to an organization created solely to elect Cruz president? Or when candidates line up to audition for a small group of donors who plan to spend nearly $900 million this election cycle? 

Related: The money race leaves some candidates behind

Most Republican hopefuls have taken questions on money issues in town hall meetings, especially in New Hampshire, where a progressive group NH Rebellion is actively working to get candidates on the record. The most typical prescription on the GOP side: Unlimited campaign donations, greater transparency.

“Prohibit nothing, disclose everything,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in Iowa on Wednesday.

“In a perfect world, candidates would be able to raise whatever amount of money they wanted to raise directly to them, totally transparent, with a 48-hour turn around,” Bush said in June.  

“We do have a Constitutional right to speech and I believe political contributions are a part of that speech, but they have to be disclosed,” Sen. Marco Rubio said at a New Hampshire town hall in February.

Cruz sponsored a bill called “The Super PAC Elimination Act” that would have eliminated campaign finance limits but required donors to be posted within 24 hours.

Limits of disclosure

These answers sidestep another growing issue, however: The role of anonymous donations. There are currently non-profits raising money to elect Bush and Rubio that don’t disclose their contributors – while the total donations to the pro-Bush Right to Rise Policy Solutions are unknown, the pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions Project has reported raising $15.8 million. These groups are allowed so long as they devote no more than 50% of their money towards political advocacy. 

Asked by msnbc whether Rubio would either support new disclosure requirements to such groups or call on pro-Rubio groups to voluntarily disclose donors, spokesman Alex Conant said only, “it's important that [groups] follow the law.” A spokeswoman for Bush did not respond to a similar request.

Some Republicans accuse Democrats of hypocrisy when it comes to anonymous donations given that a pro-Clinton has taken donations from dark money groups this cycle even as the candidate’s called for a ban on the practice.

“She either needs to give the money back or she needs to quit pretending that she’s against it,” Huckabee said in Iowa. “She’s obviously for it, she’s for it as long as it’s going into her account.” 

Pudner, the president of Take Back Our Republic, favors trading higher limits on campaign donations for greater transparency, but told msnbc that Congress needed to require disclosure from dark money groups to make it work.

“If you just up the limit but say you can stay anonymous, people will stay anonymous in most cases,” he said.