TIME Campaign Finance

Big Business Gave Heavily to Thwart Ballot Measures in 2014

Voting booths in polling place
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Anthem Inc. quickly mounted its defenses when consumer advocates pushed for a 2014 ballot initiative in California that would have made it more difficult for the nation’s third largest health insurer to raise rates.

The company, based in Indianapolis, Ind., shelled out $12.8 million to back television ads and a website that warned voters the measure would “give one politician too much power,” “create more bureaucracy” and “interfere with your treatment options.”

Anthem’s money, combined with millions from other interested parties, swamped efforts by Consumer Watchdog, the advocacy group that spent four months gathering the signatures to put Proposition 45 on the ballot. Opponents of the bill together gave more than $31.5 million — dwarfing supporters’ $2.6 million.

In November, Anthem and the other big business interests won at the polls, with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

Anthem, formerly known as WellPoint, was the second-biggest donor to groups fighting over ballot measures in the nation last year, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. The donors gave the money to political committees that advocated for or against the propositions. The health insurer did not respond to requests for comment.

Anthem’s victory on Proposition 45 was part of a pattern that played out across the country: Business interests poured money into ballot question fights, largely to protect their own revenue, with overwhelmingly positive results.

More than three-quarters of the $272 million given by the top 50 donors to ballot measure groups nationwide came from corporations or business trade groups, according to the analysis. They gave most of their money to defeat proposals and were almost always successful, winning 96 percent of the time.

Related: Meet the Top 50 Donors Who Influenced Ballot Measures

“There’s no question that when business or corporations or entities that are affected by ballot initiatives give to the ballot initiative process, they’re not doing so out of altruism,” said Joe Tuman, a professor of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University. “They’re doing so out of rational self-interest.”

‘Spending matters’

The Center for Public Integrity collected campaign finance records filed by statewide ballot measure groups that ran ads on local broadcast, national broadcast and national cable television networks in 2014. The Center then analyzed the donations behind the groups to create the list of the top 50 contributors to ballot measure fights around the country. [More details on the methodology].

Together, those 50 mega-donors gave $272 million, nearly two-thirds of the $429 million contributed to those ballot measure campaigns in 2014.

That means that a few powerful entities dominated debates nationwide over ballot initiatives, which were originally intended to give citizens a stronger voice in government.

Most of the top donors gave to more than one ballot fight — and almost half of them helped fund battles in multiple states. A few were also generous in other 2014 elections, as well. Five of the top 50 ballot measure contributors were also among the top 50 donors to races for state-level candidates.

Some of the money paid for mailers and robo-calls, but much of it went to TV ad blitzes. In 2014, more than $190 million was spent on ballot measure ads alone.

Multinational oil companies BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. successfully beat back a measure in Alaska that would have repealed tax breaks for the oil companies. After giving more than $3.5 million each to the “no” side, they won with nearly 53 percent of the vote.

The American Beverage Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that represents beverage producers, gave more than $8.2 million to fight a Massachusetts measure that would have expanded the deposit that customers must pay when buying bottled drinks. It, too, got what it wanted when 71 percent of voters rejected the new deposit proposal.

But 2014 also proved that money only goes so far, said John Matsusaka, a professor and executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

“Spending matters. If you spend money, you are going to get some votes,” he said. But “if it’s an unpopular measure you can spend as much as you like and it’s not going to pass. It’s not a system where you can just walk in and buy laws.”

Mile High USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino company that owns a racetrack and off-track betting parlor in Colorado, gave more than any other ballot measure donor in the U.S. in an unsuccessful effort to expand gaming at its Arapahoe Park racetrack near Aurora, Colorado.

Mile High gave $19.8 million to a “yes” campaign, which worked out to $9.84 per ballot cast in Colorado. Mile High’s corporate clout was countered not by citizens, but by a group of competing casinos in the state that together gave nearly $16.3 million to defeat the measure. Mile High promised that much of the newfound gambling revenue would go to a state education fund: “By permitting limited gaming at Arapahoe Park, 68 will provide millions to our schools each year,” said one backer in an ad. But voters were not swayed: 70 percent of them voted against the amendment.

In another expensive, uphill fight, Wal-Mart gave $9.3 million to an effort to pass a measure in North Dakota that would have let the company open pharmacies in the state, a haven for small, pharmacist-owned drug stores. Wal-Mart also lost, though its opponents raised a fraction of what the big-box retailer gave.

Giving big on defense

Within the top 50 donors, business interests fighting to defeat ballot measures were more successful in 2014 than those whose money was directed at trying to pass initiatives. Companies such as MGM Resorts International and Monsanto gave heavily to fight proposals that would have hurt their profits.

MGM, which is building an $800 million casino in Springfield, Massachusetts, helped pay for TV ads that warned voters the state would lose thousands of jobs if it nixed its gambling law in a November ballot question. “If Question 3 passes, we’ll lose it all — as simple as that,” said a man dressed as a construction worker in one ad. “We’re asking people to vote no on 3 so we can keep the jobs.”

For MGM, the investment of nearly $5.4 million to fight Question 3 paid off — voters rejected the initiative.

That fits with what political experts know about ballot measures: They’re easier to defeat than to pass.

“It’s easier to defend the status quo, often,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for two decades. “The onus is on the proponents to articulate why a measure needs to be passed by the people. People know what the status quo is, and you can raise doubts about whether you’re going to be better off under this proposed change.”

Some companies made successful “no” arguments across more than one state. Agricultural giant Monsanto gave $10.7 million to fight ballot questions in Colorado and Oregon that would have required genetically modified foods to be specially labeled. The company is the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the world.

“We fully support the idea of providing information to consumers to help them make choices about foods as long as the information [on the labels] being provided to consumers is accurate, science based and does not mislead,” said Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord in an email. “What we are not supportive of is a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws.”

Supporters of labeling, many of them natural food companies, raised nearly $1 million in Colorado and nearly $6.5 million in Oregon, but it wasn’t enough. Monsanto and its food-industry allies raised more than $16 million in Colorado and $20 million in Oregon, winning the ballot contests with 65 percent and just over 50 percent of the vote, respectively.

Giving money to ballot measure fights has become the norm for companies seeking to defend their profits, said Justine Sarver, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

“Ballot measures were originally created as a check on corporate influence in state legislatures,” Sarver said. “Today, corporations use the process to pad their bottom line.”

And business groups are continuing to fight for their profits at the polls. For example, plastics companies in California are already gearing up for a referendum battle over the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags.

The companies have already given millions to back a referendum repealing the ban, delaying its implementation and allowing the companies to continue raking in profits until the vote.

Billionaires and ballot questions

In addition to corporate giants, several wealthy individuals, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, used their vast stores of cash in an effort to influence state and local laws. Their new prominence in the ballot measure scene has surprised experts.

“That’s become a big issue now,” Matsusaka said. “It seems like there’s a lot of them these days.”

Bloomberg and Texas billionaire John Arnold each gave more than $2 million to groups supporting electoral reform in Oregon. The proposal would have reshaped the state’s elections into contests between the top two primary vote-getters rather than representatives from mainstream political parties. (Arnold and his wife are co-founders of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a donor to the Center for Public Integrity.)

But Oregon voters were skeptical of the political designs of those two outsiders, because Bloomberg has also promoted gun control and Arnold has backed pension reforms. Sixty-eight percent of Oregon voters rejected the idea, even though the pro-reform side gave more than status-quo supporters by a nearly 5-to-1 ratio.

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a generous GOP donor, gave $5.5 million to defeat Amendment 2, a measure that would have allowed medical marijuana in Florida. Fueled by Adelson’s money, marijuana opponents spent an estimated $5.1 million on TV ads, compared to supporters’ $2.1 million. The pot measure lost.

But two individual givers managed to change laws through ballot measures. California tech magnate Henry Nicholas gave nearly $4.3 million to pass a law in Illinois giving more rights to crime victims. Nicholas, a vocal advocate of crime victims’ rights ever since his sister, Marsy, was murdered in 1983, started his crusade for “Marsy’s law” in California and has since taken it to other states. The law to provide restitution and notification about court proceedings to crime victims passed in Illinois with 78 percent of the vote and essentially no opposition.

Rex Sinquefield, a former financial executive and now prolific political donor in Missouri, gave $2.9 million to pass the Show-Me state’s Amendment 10, which gives the Republican-led legislature more control over the budget. Observers viewed this as a shot at Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

“It’s not shocking that he would support a measure that adds to the institutional strength of a Republican-dominated legislature at the expense of a Democratic governor who he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars to defeat,” said Jeff Smith, a Missouri politics expert at New York City’s New School.

Healthy-sized giving

Among the top contributing business sectors, one outranked them all: Health care groups gave nearly $88 million in 2014, almost entirely in California. Casino companies were a close second, giving nearly $60 million across the nation.

The Golden State is known as the Wild West of ballot initiatives, with a long history of opponents and supporters spending eye-popping sums with far-reaching consequences. In 2014, two initiatives attracted considerable cash. Propositions 45, on insurance rate approval, and 46, which would have raised the state’s cap on medical malpractice damages and forced doctors to be drug tested, faced more than $90 million worth of opposition from insurers, hospitals and doctors.

Anthem’s crusade against Proposition 45 was aided by other health industry organizations also willing to give millions. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, another of California’s largest health insurance plans, gave $12.4 million to defeat both 45 and Proposition 46.

Medical malpractice insurers Norcal Mutual Insurance Company, The Doctors Company and the Cooperative of American Physicians each gave more than $10 million to fight the health measures in California.

The Proposition 46 opponents framed the measure as the darling of trial lawyers, who indeed backed it and argued that it would have protected patients by reducing preventable medical errors.

“Before you vote, remember the risks about Prop. 46,” said one ad paid for by the insurers. “The trial lawyers wrote it to serve themselves, not the rest of us, mixing three unrelated provisions together to hide what Prop. 46 actually does — allow the trial lawyers to make millions, for more medical lawsuits and higher jury awards, while Californians pay when our healthcare costs skyrocket. That’s the true story.”

Hal Dasinger, a spokesman for The Doctors Company, noted the election results showed voters agreed with his company’s position: “Proposition 46 was bad for patients, bad for physicians, bad for local and state government budgets, and opposed by an unprecedented, broad list of groups.”

Giving tens of millions of dollars to ballot measure contests was worth the investment for the health care companies, according to Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive-turned-whistleblower who writes an opinion column about health care for the Center for Public Integrity.

“These insurers have enormous amounts of money,” he said. “The largest companies make billions of dollars in profits every year. They have the money to spend, and they’re quite willing to spend it to prevent any legislation or regulation that they have reason to believe might in some way cost them money or have a negative impact on profitability.”

But in 2016, the health care industry, along with its money, will take on a harder task in California: trying to pass a measure, rather than defeat one.

The California Hospital Association is sponsoring an initiative to make permanent a program to attract more federal dollars for low-income patients’ care. The hospital group plans to round up allies and spend big, if necessary, in yet another ballot measure showdown.

“It could be 20 million. It could be 40 million. It could be more than that,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, the group’s spokeswoman. “Our decision will be based on: ‘What do we have to do to win this measure?’ If there is opposition we have to fight off, then the price tag will be higher.”

TIME 2016 Election

Ben Carson’s Rise Fueled By Massive Direct Marketing Success

Ben Carson
Scott Olson—Getty Images Dr. Ben Carson speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The subject line read, “Dr. Carson: Serious Trouble…” But the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who now polls in the top tier of Republican contenders for the presidency, was certainly not the one with problems.

“The Republican Party is in serious trouble,” ran the words that followed under a oversized font reading “From The Desk Of Ben Carson.” “So please join me in supporting Black America’s PAC with a contribution of at least $20.16 today.”

If you want to understand the conservative appeal of the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, messages like this, which go out by the thousand on conservative email lists, are the place to start. No prospective candidate’s name and likeness, including the Democratic field-clearer Hillary Clinton, has been as successful in attracting small donations over the last year than that of Carson.

In addition to his own political action committee, Carson has lent his name and signature to other online efforts, including American Legacy PAC, which Newt Gingrich co-chairs. There Carson is the face of a $5.9 million campaign called “Save our Healthcare,” which raises money in the name of fighting President Obama’s health insurance reforms.

A separate independent effort, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, raised more than $12 million in the 2014 cycle through email and direct mail with appeals featuring Carson’s name. That effort, which Carson plays no direct role in supporting, collected more during the reporting period than Ready For Hillary, the SuperPAC run by Hillary Clinton’s former aides to prepare the ground for her campaign.

Carson’s online fundraising efforts are so prolific that his own political operation is sometimes not aware of them. Terry Giles, who is set to be Carson’s campaign manager if he runs, had not heard of the Black America’s PAC email until the day after the email went out last week. He said there was no relationship between USA First Pac, which Carson founded to test the waters for a presidential run, and the group.

Black America’s PAC, or BAMPAC, was founded by former Presidential candidate Alan Keyes to support black conservative candidates. The group raised $255,803 in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and redirected only $20,750 to state and federal candidates. Almost all of the rest went to pay for fundraising expenses or the $90,000 in direct payments to the group’s director, Alvin Williams, a former advisor to the Republican National Committee and the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush.

“Dr. Carson has received no financial compensation for the use of his signature and BAMPAC has no affiliation with any group that is promoting Dr. Carson as a candidate,” Williams said in an email to TIME, when asked about Carson’s involvement. He declined to comment on how much money Carson’s appeals had raised, other than to say that the email was “effective.” The money, he continued, “will go towards supporting candidates who share BAMPAC’s political philosophy.”

Adam Waldeck, the executive director of American Legacy PAC, also said Carson received no payment for his fundraising support of the group. Since the “Save Our Healthcare” project was launched almost exactly one year ago, he said it had raised $5.9 million and signed up over 600,000 people across the country.

Waldeck acknowledged that a large portion of the proceeds were put “back into growing our footprint,” by funding more fundraising. In 2014, American Legacy PAC gave 3.3% of total contributions to candidates, while 89.7% was funneled back into more fundraising efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Advocates of the conservative direct mail argue that groups that spent the bulk of their money on fundraising, as opposed to direct political action, are nonetheless effective, because the fundraising itself can educate voters and build momentum behind a candidate. Carson’s prolific presence in the inboxes and mailboxes of Republican primary voters, they argue, has raised his profile in the crowded Republican field.

In addition to its direct fundraising efforts, the National Draft Ben Carson Committee has spent money directly to drum up support for a Carson candidacy, including buying radio ads, staffing booths at conservative conferences and paying for electronic billboard advertising in Iowa.

Much of the fundraising expenses for the group went to companies affiliated with Bruce Eberle, a powerhouse in conservative direct marketing. Jim Newberry, a senior copywriter at Eberle Associates, explained one of the appeals of Carson to TIME last year. “A black candidate has an advantage in raising money from direct-mail donors,” he said. “There’s nothing they love more than a black candidate who agrees with them on conservative views.”

In the latest national poll by Fox News, Carson polled at 9% among self-identified Republicans, about the same as Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. Mitt Romney, who took himself out of the race on Friday, polled at 21%. An Iowa poll released Sunday by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that Carson also had 9% of likely Republican votes in the first caucus state. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker led with 15% of Republican support.

On his last swing through Iowa, Carson said he had not yet made a final decision on launching a presidential campaign. “Still considering it very, very carefully,” he told reporters. “I have a surgical personality, which means you have to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.”

The original version of this story was updated to clarify Newt Gingrich’s relationship with American Legacy PAC.

TIME Campaign Finance

How National Kingmakers Flooded State Elections With Cash

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives the annual State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2015 in Trenton, New Jersey.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during his State of the State address on Jan. 13, 2015 in Trenton, New Jersey.

The top 50 contributors spent more than $440 million in 2014 races.

If money is influence, the Republican Governors Association wielded more of it than anyone else last year in state elections nationwide.

The group, led in 2014 by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, gave roughly $69 million to candidates, political parties and independent groups — more than double its Democratic counterpart — as it tried to elect Republicans to the top office in as many states as possible. The group gave more than any other donor to state-level elections last year — from races for governor to legislator to supreme court justice.

The association applied an effective strategy that’s becoming more common: giving money using multiple paths to circumvent limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties, a Center for Public Integrity analysis has found.

In addition to the money it spent directly on TV ads and other campaign efforts, the group gave about $14 million to candidates including Illinois’ new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also gave more than $3 million to state parties, including those in Texas and Maine.

The bulk of the checks it wrote, however, totaling about $50 million, went to other political groups that in turn spent the money on state races.

Its efforts largely paid off. Republicans gained four governorships in 2014 and only lost two, leaving them holding the reins in 31 states.

The group “was designed to supplement what candidates could do on their own in the states,” said Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor who turned the association into a powerhouse in the mid-1980s. “Obviously, it’s grown beyond that.”

Its competitor, the Democratic Governors Association, gave $32 million and ranked second among the sugar daddies of 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis. The group only picked up one new governor’s mansion, with Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf defeating incumbent Republican Tom Corbett. (Alaska’s Republican incumbent was beaten by an independent, Bill Walker.)

Together, the two governors’ groups and other national political organizations gave significantly more than political parties, unions, multimillionaires or corporations that also contributed heavily to influence state-level campaigns. The donations went beyond races for governor. The funds made their way into lower-ballot contests such as attorney general, state supreme court justice and state legislator.

The national groups also cropped up on the lists of the biggest donors in most states, outgiving homegrown political players in a sign that all politics may now be national.

In all, the top 50 political givers spread more than $440 million to the people and groups pushing candidates for state office, the Center for Public Integrity found. The list is thick with billionaires such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and corporations such as telecom titan AT&T Inc.

They also were more successful in backing winners than most donors, becoming the de facto kingmakers of state politics.

“It’s an amazing amount of power concentrated in a handful of organizations,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics that collected some of the data used for the analysis. “If people want to understand why government is dysfunctional, you don’t have to look much farther than this list.”

The Citizens United effect

To identify the kingmakers, the Center for Public Integrity looked at donations given to 2014 state candidates and political parties during 2013 and 2014, as tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Reporters also collected state and federal contribution records for 140 independent organizations that aired political TV ads during 2014 state elections.

Related: Meet the Top 50 Donors Who Influenced State Elections

The analysis does not include funders of groups that don’t disclose their donors to any state or federal agencies — so-called “dark money” groups. And it does not total overall contributions, because some donors received money from other donors on the list. [More details on the methodology.]

The findings paint a picture of independent groups playing a bigger role in financing state-level elections than even political parties or the candidates’ campaigns, one effect of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The 2010 ruling allowed many groups to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and wealthy patrons to influence elections as long as they did not coordinate with the candidates. Thus, they could bypass limits on giving to a candidate or political party and leapfrog ahead.

The top 50 donors identified by the Center for Public Integrity gave more than 40 percent of their contributions to independent political groups, surpassing what they gave to either candidates or political parties.

The strategy allows donors to multiply their influence, said Larry Noble, former general counsel of the FEC who now works as an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center.

“You give the maximum to the candidates, but then you want to give more,” he said. “You give to the party committee that’s also going to support the candidate. You give to outside groups that are also going to support the candidate.”

The mega-donors thus control more of the political messages that determine which issues are central to the campaign — roles previously played by candidates and political parties. And in exchange, they may expect the newly elected officials to dance with the ones that brought them.

Behind the curtain

National political groups have their own heavy-hitting donors. But because the groups function as the middlemen of political giving, voters often don’t know the original source of the cash behind a politician’s election.

The Republican Governors Association, for one, served as a conduit for billionaires and corporations looking to influence governors’ races.

The five largest contributors behind the group’s gargantuan giving power all appear separately on the Center for Public Integrity’s top 50 donor list: Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; billionaire David Koch, who runs the Kansas-based Koch Industries with his brother; electricity giant Duke Energy; investment firm ETC Capital, whose founder, Manoj Bhargava, also founded the company behind the 5-Hour Energy drink; and billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, according to IRS records from 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile, four of the five largest contributors to the counterpart Democratic Governors Association were also familiar names from the top 50 list: Michael Bloomberg and branches of three labor unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

The Republican and Democratic governors’ associations employ another common strategy that both amplifies and obfuscates their giving: contributing to “an outside group with a good-sounding name” to make support of a candidate look more diverse and to help attract different constituencies, Noble said.

For example, state records collected by the Center for Public Integrity show that the Democratic Governors Association gave more than $6 million to a group called Making Colorado Great, while the Republican Governors Association gave nearly $5.5 million to Grow Connecticut. The Colorado and Connecticut organizations then spent millions airing TV ads in their states’ respective gubernatorial contests.

“It’s name branding,” Noble said. “If you were a teacher and you see an ad from a teachers union, you’re going to give it a lot more credibility than an ad from the DGA.”

Diverse giving becomes trendy

All but a handful of the top 50 mega-donors used more than one avenue to spread their gifts. And most gave money to influence races in more than one state.

Billionaire hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin, for example, gave more than $4.6 million before the election to the campaign committee of Rauner, the Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Worth about $5.5 billion, according to Forbes, Griffin and his soon-to-be ex-wife Anne also gave at least $2.2 million to independent political groups that backed state candidates, such as the Republican Governors Association, and more than $500,000 to state GOP parties in Illinois and Florida.

A representative for Griffin declined to comment.

Some of the top donors also gave widely. Sixteen of the top 50 contributors gave to 50 or more state-level candidates running in 2014.

Getting what they paid for

Nearly 85 percent of the candidates backed directly by the top 50 donors won their elections in 2014, a far better success rate than the typical political contributor, who backed winners only 52 percent of the time.

Duke Energy, for example, had a 94 percent success rate after supporting 381 different candidates.

For corporations, in particular, political giving is a way to ensure a seat at the table once a lawmaker is elected, said Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt. Giving across the aisle improves their odds of having an ally in office come January.

“They’ll give to the incumbent and also the challenger just in case the challenger wins,” Levitt said. “They’ll give more to leadership positions because leadership positions are gateways to access for committees, for legislation, for broader regulation.”

Mass media giant Comcast picked winners in 93 percent of the more than 1,000 candidates it backed. It gave nearly $1.7 million directly to candidates, spreading it widely in 36 states.

“The contributions that the company makes are because we operate in a highly regulated industry,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice, adding that most candidates backed are incumbents. “The decisions that are made by legislatures control our business.”

In addition to its national giving, the Philadelphia-based Comcast gave heavily in its home state. Top recipients were Gov. Tom Corbett and running mate Jim Cawley, both Republicans, who together raked in $107,000 from the state’s top broadband provider but lost re-election. Hedging its bet, Comcast also gave $1,000 to Wolf, who won the governorship from Corbett.

Duke Energy, another company regulated by states, divvied up more than $500,000 among the hundreds of candidates it backed, many of whom ran for office in North Carolina, where the company is headquartered.

Additionally, the electric utility donated more than $210,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Duke Energy may have been trying to boost its support in the Sunshine State, where it has faced massive criticism for charging customer fees for nuclear plants that do not — and may never — provide power. Florida’s governor and legislature are responsible for naming the members of the commission that regulates the utility and allows such fees.

“We do not make contribution decisions on single issues,” Duke Energy spokesman Chad Eaton said. “Our employee-led PAC considers an array of issues before any decisions are made.”

In general, he said, Duke Energy donates to candidates who demonstrate “support for public policy issues that are important to our business, customers and communities” in the six states where it provides electricity.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, meanwhile, gave nearly $2.7 million to 568 candidates in 34 states and had a 64 percent win rate. It contributed more than half million dollars to Democrat Pat Quinn’s failed bid to retain the Illinois governorship, but saw more success with the $410,000 it gave to Wolf’s successful run for governor in Pennsylvania. In both states, the Republican opposition had supported scaling back public pensions or preventing unions from deducting union dues directly from members’ paychecks.

Money does not always guarantee a win, of course, and a lack of funds doesn’t necessarily foretell a loss.

In Maryland’s governor’s race, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, outraised Republican Larry Hogan several times over yet lost in one of the biggest upsets of election night. Brown was hurt by low popularity ratings that no giant war chest could fix, according to Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. And because Hogan accepted public funds for his campaign, he was limited on how much money he could spend yet also freed up to spend time on the campaign trail, not the fundraising one.

And some of the top benefactors saw little return on their campaign investments.

Billionaire physicist Charles Munger Jr., son of the Berkshire Hathaway executive of the same name, gave nearly $300,000 to 45 Republican candidates in 2014. Only 13 won for a 29 percent success rate.

The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, also fared poorly when backing candidates directly — only three of their 13 candidates won.

Allies in office

Most of the more than 6,300 state officials elected in November began work this month, shaping and creating policy across the country in 50 governors’ mansions and 99 legislative chambers — 11 of which flipped from Democratic to Republican control in the 2014 election.

For some big donors, that means the candidates they backed can now fight for their causes in state office. Or they might just be more willing to take a phone call from a benefactor who has a legislative wish list.

Noble said candidates typically know which donors they have to thank for their success — even when patrons filter their donations through independent groups.

And now, for some top givers, the real campaigning is about to begin.

Rauner, the newly sworn-in Republican governor, for one, is already gearing up for battles with the veto-proof Democratic-controlled legislature in Illinois as he pushes his stated goals of plugging the state’s budget deficit and strengthening ethics laws. He isn’t just counting on good will or smooth talking to win over potentially reluctant legislators. He’s counting on cold, hard cash to help make the case.

Rauner and two top donors, Griffin and shipping supply magnate Richard Uihlein, poured $20 million into the governor’s campaign committee in the final two days of 2014, which Rauner reportedly plans to use to back other candidates who support his policies.

Rauner’s new war chest will enable the new governor to be in a state of “perpetual campaign” — to air commercials aimed at persuading state legislators or to donate to other lawmakers’ re-election campaigns in exchange for support of Rauner’s agenda, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

In the past, a governor might have promised state legislators financial backing for development projects in their districts or helped them acquire contracts or new jobs.

“Instead of building somebody a playground in the school, he’ll be able to donate money to their campaign,” Mooney said.

And if they don’t do want he wants? “He’ll be able to fund an opponent,” he said.

TIME 2016 Election

The Secret Meanings Behind the Names of Presidential Super PACs

Conservative Activists And Leaders Attend The Iowa Freedom Summit
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, waves to the crowd during the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on Jan. 24, 2015.

Long before the campaign buttons and bumper stickers, today’s presidential candidates must create an outside fundraising committee. And while they aren’t always in total control of these groups, the names can be secret decoder rings that explain the central themes of the campaigns they are preparing.

Here’s a look at the names of five groups backing 2016 candidates and what they might signal.

Right to Rise

What is it? A leadership PAC and a separate super PAC

Who does it benefit? Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida

Where does the name come from? The “right to rise” was coined by a historian to describe President Lincoln’s views on economic opportunity. After Rep. Paul Ryan used the phrase, Bush wrote a guest editorial about it in the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

What’s it mean? The name is a sign that Bush intends to focus on pocketbook issues for the middle class, which has been stuck with stagnant wages for more than a decade. The fact he embraced the term was also a key tipoff that Ryan was not going to run.

Our American Revival

What is it? A tax-exempt 527 organization

Who does it benefit? Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Where does the name come from? Walker used the phrase “our American revival” in a recent statement critiquing President Obama’s State of the Union speech.

What’s it mean? The term “revival” has religious undertones that Walker, a preacher’s kid, surely recognizes. It’s also a sign he intends to run as a bold, populist counterpoint to Obama’s tenure in Washington.

Leadership Matters for America

What is it? A political action committee

Who does it benefit? Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey

Where does the name come from? Christie used the phrase “leadership matters” during his 2012 keynote speech at the Republican presidential convention for Mitt Romney.

What’s it mean? Christie is running on his own personality and leadership style. He intends to highlight his time as governor as well as his brash and sometimes confrontational style to contrast himself with Obama and his Republican opponents.

Stand for Principle

What is it? A super PAC

Who does it benefit? Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas

Where does the name come from? In a 2014 speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Cruz argued that Republicans need to “stand for principle” in order to win elections.

What’s it mean? Cruz intends to run as the conservative choice among the Republican field, with an orthodoxy at the center of his message that will contrast him against past nominees such as Mitt Romney and John McCain, not to mention current contenders like Christie and Bush.

Ready for Hillary

What is it? A super PAC

Who does it benefit? Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Where does the name come from? The super PAC was formed by Clinton supporters to build lists of grassroots supporters and recruit major donors before she announced a campaign.

What’s it mean? The name doesn’t portend much about Clinton’s campaign, since she didn’t choose it, at least not personally. But it does take on a central theme of the emerging Clinton juggernaut—the notion that America is now “ready” for a female president and that it’s Clinton’s turn after her 2008 primary loss.

TIME 2016 Election

Cruz, Paul and Rubio Defend Outside Spending in Koch Brothers Forum

Marco Rubio
J. Scott Applewhite—AP Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 17, 2014.

Three likely presidential candidates defended the growth of outside spending in politics Sunday evening at a forum hosted by a group affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers.

The “American Recovery Policy Forum” hosted by Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce featured Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio making their case to an audience of well-heeled business owners and featured sharp divisions over foreign policy. But one area of agreement a defense of the rights of billionaires and millionaires who are playing an ever larger role in the political system.

“Do you think there is too much influence in politics by super wealthy donors on both sides,” ABC News’ Jon Karl asked the presidential hopefuls in his final question as moderator. “As opposed to Hollywood or the mainstream media, you mean, or other multi-million dollar entities that try to influence American politics everyday,” Rubio asked, eliciting the loudest applause of the night.

“I believe in freedom of speech: I think that political spending and political activism is a form of protected speech,” Rubio said, noting that Democrats have billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer supporting their efforts. “The people who seem to have a problem with it are the ones who only want unions to be able to do it, their friends in Hollywood to be able to do it, and their friends in the press to be able to do it,” he added, to another big round of cheers.

Sen. Ted Cruz then got in on the action, lambasting Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for his longstanding attacks on the Kochs, whose network is a powerhouse on the Republican side. “There are a bunch of Democrats who have taken as their talking point that the Koch Brothers are the nexus of all evil. Harry Reid says that every week. Let me be very clear: I think that is grotesque and offensive.”

“I would love to see more and more conferences five times this size, 10 this size, of citizens of small business owners across the country fighting to change the direction,” Cruz added.

Karl then asked the three whether they would guarantee that their supporters would not have special access to them should they win the White House. Rubio, speaking for the three, said that doesn’t happen. “We run for office and people buy into our agenda,” he said. “Most of the people who support us support us because they agree with what we are doing, not because we agree with what they’re doing.”

Sen. Rand Paul indicated he would support a narrow effort at campaign finance reform to restrict the political activities of those seeking government contracts.

“Special interests can have a bad influence on government,” he said. “The special interests that I’m concerned about are those who do business with government, get government contracts, get the government money, and then try to get more contracts. And I am for some limitations.”

 

TIME 2016 Election

The Invisible Presidential Campaign Kicks Off in Earnest

Iowa Freedom Summit Features GOP Presidential  Hopefuls
Scott Olson—Getty Images Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Presidential candidates-to-be, and a passel of well-known clingers on, converged in Iowa this weekend with all the flash and fun the nation has come to expect of the Grand Old Party.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina managed substantive introductions, alongside businessman Donald Trump, who declared there is “nobody like Trump,” and Sarah Palin, who struggled with diction and metaphor, offering phrases like “We don’t sit on our thumbs this next time when one of our own is being crucified.”

The real action, however, lay elsewhere, off the stage and out of sight, in an invisible primary taking place behind closed doors in states not known for their place in the nominating calendar. Candidates have been crisscrossing the nation and working the phones, dialing for dollars and loyalty in a contest that may prove far more consequential than speech that can be given before any crowd at this point.

The goal is not to win votes, but to win the support of Republicans like Bobbie Kilberg, who hosted an off-the-record event in Virginia for Christie last week with 96 corporate technology leaders. In recent months, she has taken not one, but two calls from Mitt Romney informing her of her thinking, as he edges toward another campaign. And having worked for the administrations of both Presidents Bush, she feels a special affinity for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose son, George P. Bush, she recently supported in his race for Texas land commissioner.

“I have three wonderful friends in this race,” said Kilberg, who runs the Northern Virginia Technology Council, but supports candidates only in a personal capacity. “My expectation is that all three of them will run.”

But the physics of political fundraising does not allow for her fealty to be equally divided for long. Connecters like Kilberg now face enormous pressure to decide on a single candidate to benefit from their vast Rolodexes. “I think there is enough donor bandwidth for all three of them in the center right lane,” Kilberg explains of the three candidates. “The finite group are the bundlers.”

Securing the 2012 nomination cost Romney $76.6 million, raised in increments up to the legal limit of $2,500. His super PAC, Restore Our Future, which could accept unlimited contributions, added nearly $50 million to the tally.

Operatives affiliated with multiple campaigns say candidates will need at least $50 million to win the nomination this time around, but predict more of the spending will tilt toward the outside groups.

Bush, Romney and Christie are especially squeezed by the fundraising pressures, as their candidacies are set to rely heavily on their predicted ability to match Hillary Clinton’s formidable potential. The early start to the race — candidates are traveling the country earlier and more frequently than ever on the Republican side — adds strain across the board. Complicating matters further are changes to the nominating calendar with fewer debate opportunities and a compressed timeline that favor well-funded candidates once voters get to the polls.

Kilberg and her husband Bill, a prominent Washington lawyer, helped bundle together more than $100,000 in checks of less than $2,000 in 2004 for George W. Bush. In 2012, she helped lead Mitt Romney’s fundraising in Virginia, bringing in a reported $322,000 at just one event at her home. The Tuesday event Kilberg had with Christie and northern Virginia technology executives was not a fundraiser, she said, but a get-to-know-you session.

At almost the same time the event was happening, Bush was meeting in the offices of Dirk Van Dongen, a Republican fundraiser who runs the National Association of Wholesalers. Dongen, a Washington fundraiser for another White House aspirant, Marco Rubio, plans to support Jeb Bush this time, if he runs.

The Bush events were not fundraisers either, though forms were distributed inviting donors to begin bundling for Bush’s new political action committee, Right to Rise. The main purpose, as with the Virginia events, was to win over the networkers who traditionally hold the purse strings of presidential politics. According to people who attended, Bush spoke broadly about his views of the country and the best way to approach the presidential race. He said a winning candidate would have to connect with middle-class anxiety by walking in the shoes of regular people, said one attendee.

“The contrast was obvious,” the attendee said, explaining how Bush appeared to be contrasting himself with Romney’s 2012 campaign. “That’s 100 degrees from the 47% comment.”

Romney, meanwhile, has been reactivating his own donor base, having chosen a donor event in New York early in the month to formally announce his decision to begin pursuing a third presidential campaign. The former private-equity executive has been working the phones since then, telling donors he is serious about considering another bid.

Senator Marco Rubio, meanwhile, held his annual retreat for his top donors in Miami over the weekend, a move designed to keep his loyalists close while he considers his options. He later joined fellow Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul on stage in Palm Springs at the winter meeting of the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a spending vehicle for the billionaire GOP megadonor Koch brothers and their allies. Also in attendance, after a well-received appearance in Iowa, was Walker, who was making the first stop on a multi-day West Coast fundraising swing for his new fundraising committee, which will be announced as soon as Monday.

While Republican voters have more than a year to decide on the candidate they want to take on Democrats in 2016, the donors clock is ticking. Quarterly fundraising totals, which will come out early this summer and again in the fall, will help shape the race, determining which candidates have the money to mount serious contests, with the grassroots organizing ability and television firepower to withstand the early contests.

“It’s really what we would call in the business a pre-sell,” says a senior Republican strategist about Bush’s visit to Washington this week. “They’ll come back in the next 60 days and do some big fundraising, and they’ll hope to get a lot of those same people to be on their committee.”

For those keeping score, the results of such appeals will be the ones that count, not the applause of activist crowds. In this democratic process, the voices of the people only matter after the first waves of money have been counted.

TIME 2016 Election

Romney Faces Doubts From 2012 Donors

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland in 2013.
Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland in 2013.

It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to win the White House in 2016, and by that measure, Republican Mitt Romney is off to a rough start.

The 2012 Republican nominee is struggling to secure the financial backing even of the people who were his staunchest supporters.

The Center for Public Integrity in recent days attempted to contact roughly 90 top Romney fundraisers from his most recent presidential run, including every federal lobbyist who helped him raise $30,000 or more.

The vast majority willing to speak on the record say they haven’t decided whom to support in 2016. Almost all of these fundraisers said they’re wrestling with conflicting loyalties to Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other potential Republican hopefuls such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham and Govs. Mike Pence, Scott Walker and Chris Christie.

If Romney hopes to win the nomination, he’ll have to work overtime to reconstitute the fundraising network that fueled his most recent White House bid and beat back potential competitors. Bush, in particular, is already trying to poach key Romney supporters who have the potential to raise, or “bundle,” millions of dollars for the candidate they ultimately decide to support.

To wit: Bush spent Tuesday afternoon courting some of Washington’s most powerful lobbyist-donors — including many top Romney 2012 fundraisers — around a dark-wood oval table in the bare-walled conference room at the offices of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

No food was served, but the presidency was on the table.

Bush provided fundraising-related material to those who wanted it. The material included fundraising tiers for his two recently formed political vehicles — a leadership political action committee and a super PAC. A person who was at the event said the top tier reached $500,000.

“Obviously, I’m biased, I’m supporting Gov. Bush, but I think if you were to talk to folks other than me that were in attendance they would say that he was impressive,” said Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who organized the meetings.

Van Dongen, who raised more than $1.4 million for Romney’s campaign in 2012, said he is supporting Bush this time because of “a long-standing commitment.”

The meeting also provided Bush a chance to convince potential bundlers he could run a strong campaign. Multiple attendees say he did that, although several said they left the gathering still uncommitted.

At least one attendee said he was extremely impressed by Bush but added it’s difficult to raise large sums of money for someone who is not yet a declared candidate.

Bush spoke about his background in key national issues such as education and immigration reform and referred graciously to potential opponents, including Romney, while making the case that he could best connect with the electorate, according to two people who were there.

Bush and Romney met today in Utah, according to media reports. If one decides against running, it would free up supporters who are torn between them.

Representatives for Bush and Romney could not be reached for comment Thursday.

During the 2012 election cycle, Romney spent $104 million through the end of May, the period when he was working to clinch the nomination, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance data.

Romney’s own campaign committee raised $446 million during the full 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and President Barack Obama’s campaign committee raised $715 million for his successful re-election. To pull in such massive amounts of money — which doesn’t include party, super PAC or nonprofit cash — candidates need bundlers.

Conflicting loyalties

Romney does have some committed backers.

“I’ve been a strong supporter since day one of Mitt’s efforts, and I have made it clear that I wouldn’t … commit to any other candidate until Mitt decided what he wanted to do for 2016,” said Mark Baker, a Montana lawyer who was Romney’s Montana finance chairman in both 2008 and 2012 and bundled nearly $500,000 for the 2012 campaign.

Baker said he’s heard from members of Romney’s “inner circle” about the possibility for another run and has been reaching out to other donors in an attempt to hold support steady.

“People have contacted me, and I’ve contacted others,” he said, adding that he hasn’t yet organized any events. “Generally, there’s a lot of support for Mitt. A lot of folks who were supportive in 2012 certainly feel that we would be in a much better place as a nation had Mitt been elected president. I think there’s a lot of excitement about the potential that that could happen in 2016.”

Another high-profile bundler, lobbyist Bill Simmons of Dutko Grayling, told USA Today he would back another Romney run. He raised nearly $1.3 million in 2012.

Many other former Romney supporters, however, aren’t on board — at least not yet.

In interviews this month with the Center for Public Integrity, several ticked off long personal histories with both Bush and Romney. A few confirmed they’ve committed to other potential presidential candidates. Others signaled they’re still deciding.

Take Wayne Berman, a former lobbyist who is now a senior adviser for global government affairs at private equity company Blackstone Group. He raised nearly $500,000 for Romney in 2012 but now confirms he’s backing Rubio.

Randy Levine, the president of the New York Yankees, supported Romney is 2012 but is currently uncommitted.

Texas developer Harlan Crow, a major donor in 2012 to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, is also still on the sidelines.

Robert Grand, the Indianapolis-based managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg, raised more than $1 million for Romney during the 2012 cycle. He is also uncommitted, and confirmed in an email that he is waiting to see if Pence, the governor of Indiana, becomes a candidate.

Annie Presley, the national deputy finance director for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, raised $53,000 for Romney during the 2012 cycle. She said she hasn’t heard from any candidates yet but likely will when they work their way around to her home state, Missouri. She is still uncommitted, and said she is impressed by both Bush and Romney.

“Either of them would make excellent presidents,” she said, but mused aloud about the possibility of a run by California businesswoman and former U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.

Van D. Hipp Jr., chairman of consulting firm American Defense International and a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he thinks the array of choices “shows the strength of the Republican field.” He served on Romney’s finance team in 2012 but hasn’t committed to Romney in 2016.

“I’ve got several friends looking at it mighty strong. I think the world of Romney,” Hipp said, while noting his ties to other prospective candidates, including Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Add Graham, the U.S. senator from South Carolina, to Hipp’s mix, too.

“I’ve talked with some folks in South Carolina this past week who said they had gotten phone calls [from Graham] telling them, quote, to keep their powder dry,” he said. Hipp says he personally hasn’t yet heard from Graham, but added, “we go back a long ways and he’s a good friend of mine.”

Someone who has been in touch with Graham: David Wilkins, who leads the public policy and international law group at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

Wilkins bundled $87,000 for Romney in 2012. He was the state chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and was an ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush. “I have great admiration and respect for Gov. Bush, but until Lindsey makes a decision, a lot of us are — we’re for Lindsey Graham,” Wilkins said.

Despite modestly describing himself as “way down the totem pole” of fundraising, Wilkins acknowledged he’d heard from people representing multiple candidates, including Bush.

Christie, the New Jersey governor, has also scored former Romney fundraisers: billionaire Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone is one of them, according to news reports, as is Dallas investor Ray Washburne, who reportedly stepped down as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee to headline Christie’s bid.

’I want to hear everyone out’

Gaylord T. Hughey Jr., a prominent campaign cash bundler from Texas, said he has heard from and met with “several” potential presidential candidates or their representatives.

None have yet won his support.

Hughey explained he’s looking for a candidate with “integrity and vision and policy positions that a majority of the voters can agree with … electability is obviously there but you also have to have a man of character and vision and principle that can be elected. I want to hear everyone out before I commit my time and resources to supporting an individual candidate.”

Hughey bundled more than $350,000 for Romney’s 2012 campaign. He also raised money for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another possible 2016 presidential candidate, when Perry ran for president during the 2012 election cycle. Furthermore, he raised more than $200,000 for Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, during his 2004 campaign.

Hughey has also contributed to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also reportedly eyeing a presidential run.

Asked about the number of potential candidates with Texas ties, Hughey said, wryly: “They all have Texas ties to the degree they want to raise campaign funds.”

David Beightol, a lobbyist who attended the meeting with Bush, raised nearly $1.6 million for Romney’s 2012 campaign, the second-highest amount on the lobbyist bundler list.

“I’ve got a really difficult decision” between Romney and Bush, Beightol said.

Beightol said he has not yet heard from Romney’s team. As for Bush’s organization: “The work ethics and the team that he’s building is the most aggressive that I’ve ever seen at this stage.”

Others agreed the race was getting underway early.

“I don’t think any of these guys have gotten into serious fundraising yet,” said Ken Kies, a lobbyist with Federal Policy Group who raised nearly $73,000 for Romney. “They are at a relatively early stage. Having said that, I think things will pick up fairly soon.”

Kies says he remains uncommitted.

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, now the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said he, too, has deep ties to both Bush and Romney.

Graves raised nearly $1.8 million for Romney in 2012, the highest amount on the list of lobbyist bundlers disclosed by the campaign. He also met with Bush on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

He originally met Jeb Bush while working on former President George H.W. Bush’s 1980 campaign, which Graves describes as his “first political endeavor.”

Graves said he has heard from both the Bush and Romney camps and is still uncommitted.

TIME 2016 Election

GOP Hopefuls To Talk Economic Growth at Koch Brothers Event

Sen. Rand Paul Speaks To The Detroit Economic Club
Bill Pugliano—Getty Images Sen. Rand Paul speaks with the news media after delivering a speech at the Detroit Economic Club on Dec. 6, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.

Three Republican presidential hopefuls will address a gathering affiliated with billionaire Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch this weekend, as they look to shore up financial backing in advance of their White House bids.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will attend the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural “American Recovery Policy Forum” on Sunday evening at the group’s annual winter meeting in Palm Springs. The closed-door event will bring together roughly 450 top donors and business leaders, the group said, and comes as it prepares to take on a more public role in the national political debate.

The trio will share the same stage for a discussion moderated by ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, Freedom Partners said, with the discussion focusing on economic issues, energy, healthcare, and as well as improving the GOP’s brand and bringing its message to non-traditional audiences.

“Our members care deeply about the future of our nation and we’re honored to host some of today’s most influential and respected leaders in shaping public policy,” Freedom Partners spokesman James Davis said in a statement. “We hope that this panel will give each participant the opportunity to lay out their vision of free markets and the role of government. Our goal in 2015 is to help inform the national debate around key domestic economic issues, and this forum is the beginning of that conversation.”

POLITICO, which first broke news of the senators’ attendance last week, reported that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is also set to attend the gathering, but he will not appear at the forum.

The Koch-backed free market group released a Plan for Economic Growth last week which calls for balancing the federal budget and cutting back regulations.

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