Well-known liberal and conservative political donors left the sidelines and injected tens of millions of dollars into the presidential race over the past six months. And once again, it was a tiny group of individuals and businesses who gave a great deal of the money now being deployed in the presidential nomination fights.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Sunday — just hours before Iowa voters were to bring the frenzy of campaign activity in their state to a temporary halt as they caucused for their preferred candidates — showed some campaigns and super PACs falling far behind in the money race as others capitalized on good debate performances and the public’s discontent with Washington.
Data collected from the filings of 21 different super PACs supporting the top 13 major party candidates (not including former Sen. Rick Santorum or former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore) show 29 individuals or organizations who gave $1 million or more, and even that slice of the overall $99.4 million raised by those groups is concentrated at the top.
With a $6 million contribution to a super PAC backing Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Priorities USA Action, liberal billionaire George Soros took the prize for biggest individual contribution. He’s still $4 million behind the largest single contribution, a $10 million drop from Hank Greenberg through his insurance conglomerate C.V. Starr & Co. to the super PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Right to Rise USA.
That $99 million will remain out of the candidates’ reach, legally speaking. The money given to the super PACs backing them isn’t theirs to spend, and the last six months saw several candidates — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, most notably — drop out of the race despite millions of dollars at the disposal of super PACs supporting their candidacies. Much of that money was simply refunded to the mega-donors who gave it. Candidates doing well on the campaign trail, though, generally had little trouble raising “hard money” for their campaign committee’s expenses.
All told, the 21 major single-candidate super PACs and 13 campaign committees we counted raised $260 million in the last six months of 2015.
Donors step off the sidelines
Greenberg is best known as the former CEO of American International Group (AIG) who was forced from the company by the U.S. government after it received a government bailout of $185 billion during the financial crisis.
A major GOP donor for decades, Greenberg had been relatively quiet this cycle; he’d shown a hint of support for Scott Walker with a $5,000 gift to the super PAC backing him, Unintimidated PAC, CRP data show, as well as $5,000 to the super PAC supporting Perry, who bowed out of the presidential race last year. His company’s $10 million contribution to Right to Rise USA ended Greenberg’s restraint — though he seems likely to be turning his sights elsewhere. He put some distance between himself and that gift, which was made Oct. 21, in an interview with FOX business last month.
“I didn’t make the contribution, the company did,” Greenberg said. “I like Jeb Bush. I’m sorry he is not living up to expectations, but that’s the reality of it.”
And others seem to agree. Right to Rise brought in only $15.1 million in the second half of 2015 — two-thirds of it from Greenberg’s company — compared with $103.2 million in the first six months.
He wasn’t the only major Republican donor begin committing real money. Billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in November and made a $2.5 million contribution to Conservative Solutions PAC. Not only did he show up to the Marco party, he brought friends: Kenneth C. Griffin and Cliff Asness, two billionaire investors who often give to the same candidates and causes as Singer, gave Rubio $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively. Asness hadn’t yet given to a presidential super PAC; Griffin had given $10,000 apiece to the pro-Rubio super PAC and Right to Rise USA in June.
If the megadonors smiled on Rubio, they seemed more reluctant to ante up for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), despite his strong showing in the GOP debates and in some polls. Robert McNair, for example, the owner of the Houston Texans and already a major donor to several candidate super PACs this cycle, kept giving to those backing businesswoman Carly Fiorina as well as Bush and Rubio, but not to any of those behind Cruz.
In fact, in a departure from the first few months of the cycle, when Cruz attracted several eight-figure donors to the Hydra-headed group of super PACs supporting him, his top donor since then gave just $1 million. Several of the pro-Cruz groups, all operating with versions of the name “Keep the Promise,” were each funded by a very small number of donors, with the idea that they would take charge of different aspects of advertising and other voter outreach. But they didn’t spend much money for months, prompting tension with the Cruz campaign and the appearance of new super PACs supporting the candidate.
One of the Keep the Promise groups is now putting millions into advertising in Iowa and South Carolina. In addition, Cruz’ campaign account has seen an uptick in activity, with $20.5 million in contributions in the last quarter compared with $26.6 million in the first quarters of 2015 combined. Unlike many candidates, he spent less than he brought in and ended the year with a cushion of $18.7 million.
Meanwhile, George Soros made waves at the other end of the ideological pool. Now, he’s given Priorities USA Action and another super PAC backing Clinton, American Bridge, a total of $8 million in this cycle. Soros, who’s worth $24.9 billion, according to Forbes, and ranks 29th on its billionaires list, helped form a secretive network of liberal megadonors called Democracy Alliance in 2004. (Full disclosure: one of Soros’ nonprofit groups, Open Society Foundations, gave $350,000 to the Center for Responsive Politics for the years 2014-15.)
Several of the top 10 individual donors to super PACs over the last six months gave to Priorities USA Action. In addition to Soros, Haim Saban gave $3 million, Laure Woods gave $1.6 million and Donald Sussman gave $1.5 million. Each was already a top super PAC donor this cycle because of previous contributions to Priorities; they returned to help the Clinton-backing group raise $25 million in the last six months.
Organized labor — including the Bricklayers, Operating Engineers, Building Trades and Plumbers and Pipefitters’ unions, as well as the American Federation of Teachers — also lent a hand, to the tune of about $4.75 million.
Clinton’s campaign account made a similarly strong showing, raising a whopping $38.2 million in contributions in the last three months of 2015. It didn’t stick around long: The campaign spent all but about $83,000 of it. Her nest egg from earlier fundraising allowed her to close the year with almost $38 million.
Clinton’s $115.6 million in overall receipts is nearly identical to her total in 2007.
While super PACs are required to disclose their donors, those donors aren’t always transparent, particularly not when they take the form of LLCs with mysterious initials.
Rubio’s Conservative Solutions PAC, for instance, received $500,000 from IGX LLC; The Wilmington, Del., address listed for the mystery entity turns out to house something called Corporation Service Company, which says it serves as a registered agent for “for thousands of corporate entities.”
Another mystery, which gave Conservative solutions $90,000, is TMCV #2 LLC, which is listed at the address of an attorney in Idaho Falls.
Less difficult to decipher is NG Montana LLC, which gives an address that turns out to be the ranch of Frank and Belinda VanderSloot. Vandersloot, said to be the richest man in Idaho and a longtime GOP donor, said last fall he’d host fundraisers for Rubio and give to super PAC supporting him. The LLC gave $85,000, while VanderSloot separately sent $150,000.
Funds raised by campaign committees — the organizations helmed by the candidates themselves — are the nuts and bolts of campaign finance. Donors can give only up to $2,700 per election, per cycle, but when times are good and a candidate enjoys broad support, money tends to flow freely.
For instance, it seems just about everyone in the swelling crowds depicted in Sen. Bernie Sanders‘ (D-Vt.) recent musically poignant ad must have contributed to his campaign: Sanders raised more than $33.5 million from individual donors. On the surface it looked like he was gaining favor with larger donors, since he only received about $9.3 million in “itemized contributions” (or those from donors giving more than $200) in the first two quarters of his effort combined, compared with $10.1 million in the final quarter.
More than half of Sanders’ “itemized” total in the fourth quarter is accounted for by individuals who gave multiple small amounts that eventually summed to more than $200. Once an individual hits that threshold, all of his or her further contributions — even if they’re just $5 gifts — must be “itemized” with the donor’s name, occupation and employer and other information. In Sanders’ case, only $4.5 million of his year-end total represents single contributions of more than $200.
For all of Sanders’ fundraising success, though, his combined $75 million 2015 total doesn’t quite reach the standard set by another relative outsider, then-Sen. Barack Obama, who raised $102.2 million in 2007.
Many candidates burned through their campaign money towards the end of last year. Sanders spent $32.4 million for the quarter, almost equivalent to his total in donations; nevertheless, he still had $28.3 million socked away as of Dec. 31.
The picture for Rubio was similar, though on a smaller scale. He raised $14.2 million in the last quarter of 2015 – by far his best quarter of the cycle. But he spent a bit more, nearly $14.8 million, and finished the year with $10.4 million.
Bush, like his super PAC, struggled. He took in just $7.1 million, almost all of it from individuals giving more than $200. And he spent $9.8 million – about $2.7 million more than he received in the last quarter of the year. He still had close to $7.6 million in the bank at the end of December due to contributions he’d received early in the race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bush’s opponent in the GOP “establishment lane,” or the real estate on the political spectrum also sought by Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, didn’t fare much better. Much of the wind, such as it was, went out of Christie’s campaign in the last part of the year: He raised just $2.9 million and spent $3.2; in the previous quarter he had managed to bring in $4.2 million. His stockpile of cash was down to $1.1 million.
Meanwhile, the Republican front-runner, billionaire real estate titan Donald Trump, pulled in about $2.1 million from small donors – about four times as much as he got from large contributors. But the bulk of his funding came from loans to himself: He finally put a serious sum of his own money, $10.8 million, into his campaign, as he’d promised to do. Trump spent close to $6.9 million, and had almost exactly that same amount left in the bank at year’s end.
But Trump can no longer brag that he’s doing it all himself with no outside group gathering big bucks to support him. In January, TrumPAC was launched by by William Doddridge, CEO of the Jewelry Exchange, and Amy Kremer, former chair of the Tea Party Express. It’s first fundraising report has yet to be filed.
Researcher Alex Baumgart and reporting intern Alex Glorioso contributed to this story.
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