Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, SARAH COHEN and KAREN YOURISHAUG.
The vast majority of the $388 million backing presidential candidates this year is being channeled to groups that can accept unlimited contributions in support of candidates from almost any source. The speed with which such "super PACs” can raise money — sometimes bringing in tens of millions of dollars from a few businesses or individuals in a matter of days — has allowed them to build enormous campaign war chests in a fraction of the time that it would take the candidates, who are restricted in how much they can accept from a single donor.
Federal Election Commission reports and Internal Revenue Service records shows that the fund-raising arms race has made most of the presidential hopefuls deeply dependent on a small pool of the richest Americans. The concentration of donors is greatest on the Republican side, according to the Times analysis, where consultants and lawyers have pushed more aggressively to exploit the looser fund-raising rules that have fueled the rise of super PACs. Just 130 or so families and their businesses provided more than half the money raised through June by Republican candidates and their super PACs.
“The question is whether we are in a new Gilded Age or well beyond it — to a Platinum Age,” said Michael J. Malbin, president of the Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks the flow of campaign money.
The intensifying reliance on big money in politics mirrors the concentration of American wealth more broadly. In an era when a tiny fraction of the country’s population has accumulated a huge proportion of its wealth, the rich have also been empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other regulatory changes to spend more on elections.
To peruse the top donors in presidential politics is to take a cross section of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Some of the donors inherited or married into wealth, but many are self-made: publicity-shy investors who earned billions in
“In the donor world, it is primarily a love of economic freedom,” said Chart Westcott, a Dallas private equity investor who has contributed $200,000 to Unintimidated PAC, a group backing Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. “That’s the biggest drive for most donors — more prosperity for the country as a whole, as well as for themselves.”
At least $13.5 million of the $20 million raised by Mr. Walker’s super PAC came from just four donors: the Wisconsin roofing billionaire and union foe Diane Hendricks; the Ricketts family of Nebraska and Illinois; the New York investor Len Blavatnik; and the Uihlein family of Illinois, whose members descend from the founders of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.
Out of the $16 million raised by Conservative Solutions PAC, which is supporting Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, $12.5 million came from just four donors, including Norman Braman, a billionaire auto dealer and longtime patron of Mr. Rubio; the tech investor Larry Ellison; and a horse stable owned by the health care executive Benjamin Leon Jr.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, has raised the most cash from the fewest donors. A collection of super PACs supporting Mr. Cruz raised $37 million, nearly all of it from three families. Robert Mercer, a deeply private hedge fund investor from New York, contributed $11 million, making him the top known political donor in the country so far this election cycle.
The Wilks family of Texas, which earned billions in the fracking boom, contributed $15 million to support Mr. Cruz’s bid. Toby Neugebauer, a private equity investor based in Puerto Rico — a home he adopted two years ago and where he faces more favorable tax laws — provided $10 million to Mr. Cruz’s effort.
The super PAC set up by allies of Jeb Bush collected by far the most money, $103 million, given by thousands of donors. But a relatively small number provided the bulk of the money. At least 26 individuals or companies contributed more than $1 million to the group, including Mike Fernandez, a Cuban-American billionaire who with his family gave more than $3 million; Francis Rooney, a former ambassador to the Vatican, who gave more than $2 million; and Helen Schwab, wife of the investor Charles R. Schwab, who gave $1.5 million.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA, brought in $15 million, most of it from nine donors giving $1 million each. But Mrs. Clinton and the other Democratic candidates have raised most of their cash directly to their campaigns, from a much larger number of donors giving relatively smaller checks.
A few donors, with strong connections in various Republican circles, gave to more than one candidate: Annette Simmons, widow of the billionaire and major Republican donor Harold Simmons, gave $100,000 each to groups backing Mr. Walker and Mr. Bush, while Marlene Ricketts doled out large checks to several super PACs.
Many of the country’s biggest donors are not only financial peers but also friends, members of an elite class of contributors who gather at a series of enclaves around the year, from the Club for Growth’s annual Palm Beach retreat on the right, to the closed-door meetings of the liberal Democracy Alliance on the left. Some live or work in the same buildings in New York or Chicago.
But millions of dollars also came from corporate entities with no clear link to a known individual or business: One million-dollar donor to the pro-Bush super PAC is Jasper Reserves, a limited liability corporation established two years ago in West Virginia, where records provided few clues about its owners or its business interests.
Big donors are not only patrons of the candidates but also their confidantes, with extraordinary access to the candidates — and, sometimes, business before them.
Mr. Braman has previously subsidized Mr. Rubio’s salary, and employed his wife. Mr. Fernandez, who became a billionaire after building several health care companies, emailed with Mr. Bush often when he was governor of Florida to ask about doing business with the state, Mr. Bush’s emails show.
The largest single donation to America Leads, a group supporting Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, came from a Boston investor seeking to build a $4 billion casino resort there. At least five donors to Mr. Walker’s super PAC are companies that received hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid from Wisconsin’s economic development agency, according to state records.
The findings also hint at two sides to the Supreme Court’s multiyear drive to deregulate the country’s campaign finance rules, which have whittled away at limits on giving by the wealthy. Super PACs, unleashed by the Citizens United decision, have become de facto campaign arms, increasingly undertaking the core costs — advertising, polling and travel, for example — once assumed by candidates, who are limited to raising just $2,700 from each donor.
“The 2016 presidential candidates and their individual-candidate super PACs are wiping out the nation’s anticorruption candidate contribution limits,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, which favors tighter restrictions on political money.
But the looser rules for super PACs have also helped expand the pool of candidates, allowing a small number of extremely wealthy people to jump-start contenders who might otherwise have difficulty raising enough money to reach the first primary contests next year. The super PAC backing Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, raised almost all of its money — about $3 million — from the poultry magnate Ronald Cameron, for example. Two men, a Philadelphia-area options trader and a San Francisco tech investor, have provided more than half the money to super PACs supporting Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“Most start-up operations need an angel investor — someone who believes in the project and the candidate and puts money in to make it viable,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which pushes for reducing limits on campaign giving.
Mr. Keating said he believed that the potential for corruption was minimal.
“Are they going to return people’s phones calls? Yeah, I’m sure they’re going to return people’s phone calls,” Mr. Keating said. “But I don’t think it’s going to drive policy.”
Reporting was contributed by Steve Eder, Kitty Bennett, Jeremy Bowers and Chase Davis.