Aspiring presidents, meet your generous patrons.
Super PACs have long been on track to shatter nearly every fundraising record on the books. But with last week’s fundraising report deadline, we learned which billionaires specifically were bankrolling the groups that have already defined the opening scenes of the presidential nomination fights.
These donors are giving seven-figure checks to super PACs, which aren’t subject to contribution limits. Nearly every presidential candidate has courted them, landed them and maybe even lamented those who got away.
They are hedge-fund magnates and oil tycoons, political neophytes and veteran financiers, heartland Republicans and Hollywood Democrats. And though the gift-givers aren’t household names, we now know the size of the gifts given by some donors who will be among the country’s most powerful Americans over the next 16 months.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the presidential campaign thanks to the disclosures revealed Friday:
Everyone’s got a sugar daddy
When a single mega-donor chose to prop up the fading campaigns of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in 2012, it was novel. In 2016, it could be the norm.
One hand’s worth of donors is responsible for the majority of funding for nearly every presidential candidate’s super PAC. Thirty-six million dollars of the $38 million – or 95% of the cash – raised for Ted Cruz’s super PAC came from three families. Mike Huckabee’s group received $3 million from Arkansas poultry producer Ron Cameron and $600,000 from everybody else. Carly Fiorina owes her political fortune to Jerry Perenchio, who is responsible for nearly half of the money that her super PAC raised.
Campaign-finance reformers said Friday that the lopsided impact of the nation’s wealthiest Americans makes the problem with unlimited contributions crystal clear. But there’s also no sign that it’s going away – which means that the motives, personalities and checkbook sizes of the super PAC super donors are just part of doing business when it comes to running for president.
Jeb Bush’s fundraising juggernaut is just getting started
The former Florida governor rewrote the rules of presidential fundraising by delaying his campaign in order to help raise $103 million for his super PAC. On Friday, his group’s report showed how deep that support runs.
Unlike his competitors, Bush does not have one huge donor – his largest backer, Miguel Fernandez, taps out at $3 million. And that makes his juggernaut even more imposing: About two dozen people gave seven-digit donations to Bush’s group, and they can likely give much, much more as Bush approaches the first primaries. One-hundred-and-three million dollars is probably nowhere near Bush’s maximum fundraising potential.
So while Cruz, Huckabee or Fiorina will have to work to either woo brand new donors or convince their now backers who’ve already forked over millions to fish for more pennies, Bush should have a far easier time accumulating additional funds. That means this election could get much more expensive.
Hillary Clinton’s big-money problem
While most of the competitive cash courting has taken place on the Republican side, Friday also showed in stark terms the challenges facing Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action.
Unlike her Republican rivals, Clinton’s official campaign’s haul eclipsed that of her allied group, raising three times what Priorities brought in. But many of the top Democratic funders contributed $0 of the $15 million raked in by the super PAC. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, the Democratic Party’s top giver in 2014, hasn’t yet contributed. Nor has Chicago entrepreneur Fred Eychaner.
Priorities, which has undergone leadership changes at the top, has reportedly raised just as much in July as it did in the first half of 2015. But the roster of donors on Priorities’ report on Friday leaves open how much the leading liberal donors will commit to the super PAC.
There are many more mega-donors to win over
The Republican hopefuls eying the White House began shadow campaigns nearly immediately after the 2012 cycle concluded, but many of the donors they have pursued still are sitting on the sidelines.
Of the top 90 Republican donors in 2012 and 2014, about half have not committed to any candidate’s super PAC. And half of those who have donated also chose to give to a second or a third candidate’s group as well – meaning they may be just as uncommitted as the donors who have given to none of them.
So over the next ten months, expect to see candidates working crowds in Des Moines and Manchester, but also still charming the billionaires who could turn a Republican contestant into a Republican nominee.
Corporate giving is here to stay
Who is Rooney Holdings Inc? Where is Besilu Stables L.L.C? What is Access Industries? And why did they give millions of dollars to groups supporting Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker?
Corporations, which can now give unlimited donations to super PACs thanks to a few Supreme Court decisions in 2010, are flooding the coffers of allied groups in the opening stages. Corporate donors aren’t new – they commonly shuffle money to nonprofit groups that aren’t require to disclose their contributors – but their increasing prevalence means the businesses are more deserving of scrutiny than ever.
The problem, though, is that some corporations – be they a holding company or a limited liability company – can be difficult to trace back to the individual directing the donation. That makes it even harder to figure out who is financing the presidential campaigns and the donors who to which candidates could be beholden.