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Another Election, Another Flood Of Money

Cracking the Contribution Cap: One in a Million Americans

Americans who have taken advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to toss aside overall political contribution limits are one in a million. Actually, they’re slightly fewer than one in a million. Of the 318 million people in the U.S., a whopping 310 donors have given more than the total $123,200 they were allowed to contribute to candidates, parties and PACs before the April McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows.

This gilded group of donors favors Republicans over Democrats by a two-to-one margin: The GOP has pulled in $33.3 million from the group, Democrats just $15.6 million. That said, there are major funders on both sides of the aisle. The No. 1 donor is philanthropist and retired speech-language pathologist Marsha Z. Laufer, who has given $384,900 to Democrats. Sitting at No. 2 is Charles R. Schwab, founder of the investment firm, who has given $338,900 exclusively to Republican recipients.

Many of them believe the Supreme Court got it right.  “Anything that opens up the right of citizen to contribute to his or her choice of a candidate for public office… is basically a good thing,” Roy Pfautch, a public affairs consultant from St. Louis, told OpenSecrets Blog. “I now have the opportunity to support whom I want.” Pfautch has donated $165,800 so far this cycle, all of it to Republican recipients, and ranks 97th on the list of individual hard money donors in this midterm election.

“Clearly McCutcheon is working,” Richard DeVos said in a statement to OpenSecrets Blog. “It provides for greater freedom, and the current system provides ample transparency for those who step up and make their voices heard in the public square.”

DeVos, former CEO of Amway and the son of the company’s founder, is one of many names on the list who likely are familiar to followers of political money. He’s the 65th wealthiest American, according to Forbes, and 25th biggest hard money contributor in the 2014 cycle. All of his $217,050 has gone to Republican recipients.

Lightning rods and lobbyists

Liberal billionaire George Soros, No. 56 on the list.  (Rex Features via AP Images)

Others are bêtes noires of the left and right: Billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch ($164,800 and $258,500, respectively), along with Chase Koch (Charles’ son, who has given $158,800) and Julia Koch (David’s wife, who has given $154,400); and George Soros, the liberal billionaire ($185,100). Predictably, the Kochs gave entirely to Republican or conservative recipients, and Soros gave entirely to causes on the left.

In fact, the giving patterns of almost all the donors who have broken through the caps are starkly partisan: 158 have only given to Republican recipients and 75 have given only to Democratic ones.

Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who own the Venetian casino in Las Vegas and who spent more than $92 million in the 2012 presidential election backing conservative super PACs, have each given $213,100 to the right, and Sheldon Adelson’s daughter, Shelley Adelson has given $165,500.

Pete Coors and August Busch III, both regular prominent conservative donors, also busted the old cap, as did Dan Senor, the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during the Iraq War under President George W. Bush and now a prominent conservative pundit. They all gave only to the right.

Notably missing from the roster? Shaun McCutcheon, the Alabama Republican businessman who successfully sued to topple the limits. He’s given $85,412 so far this cycle, $36,462 of it to candidates.

Through June 30, the 310 have combined to give $49.8 million, or about $11.6 million more than would have been permissible under the old limits. Not included in the totals are the group’s donations to party recount funds and any gifts to super PACs or other outside spending groups — neither of which would have counted toward the limits before McCutcheon. DeVos, for instance, has given $100,000 to the, a super PAC started recently in an effort to rebrand the GOP ; Soros has turned $1 million over to American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic opposition research group that is also a super PAC; and the Koch brothers historically have helped support a network of dark money groups — 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors.

A gilded group

Very few Americans make political contributions at all, and less than 0.03 percent of the population gives more than $2,600 — the maximum an individual can give to a single candidate for each election. So the number of donors willing to open their wallets wide enough to bump up against the earlier FEC limit — which, in this cycle, was $123,200 overall to candidates, PACs and parties — already would barely have filled a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

Still, the Court said in its ruling that the government’s interest in preventing corruption didn’t trump an individual’s First Amendment right to give to as many candidates as he or she wanted to. Left in place were limits on how much an individual can give to each campaign, party committee or PAC. A CRP estimate found it would now be possible for one donor to give in excess of $3.5 million in the cycle — a significant sum, particularly considering the average winning House campaign in 2012 cost $1.5 million.

The big winners on the receiving end have been party committees, especially Republican ones. Donors may give up to $32,400 to each party committee — the parties have three apiece — per year, but prior to McCutcheon, an individual donor could give no more than $72,400 to all committees in a cycle. With that limit gone, donors may give $32,400 to each party committee every year — and still give to an unlimited number of PACs and candidates.

Of the total $49.8 million these 310 donors have ponied up, $7.9 million has gone to the Republican National Committee, the No. 1 recipient of cash from this elite class. The National Republican Congressional Committee ranks second, with $6.2 million and the National Republican Senatorial Committee comes in third, with $5.8 million. The three Democratic committees follow with totals far smaller than their Republican counterparts.

But they have benefited too. Andrew Tobias, a writer of investment and other books and the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee told OpenSecrets Blog that he contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the main fundraising arm of House Democrats, mainly because of the Court’s ruling. “[A]fter McCutcheon, and with so much at stake, I swallowed hard and sent an unsolicited $32,400 to the DCCC,” he said. “I’m a very fortunate guy, but to me that’s real money.” He’s given $144,700 overall.

The two candidates who have received most from this group are Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), who received $457,000, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who closely trailed Boehner with $447,000.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who's vying for a Senate seat, is a top beneficiary of donors who have cracked the pre-McCutcheon contribution limits. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

But two GOP establishment candidates in hard-fought Senate races have been heartily bankrolled by these donors, too. Rep. Tom Cotton, who hopes to turn David Pryor out of his Arkansas Senate seat, has received $381,000 (making him the third largest recipient after Boehner and Markey). And Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is embroiled in a nailbiter trying to oust Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, has received $293,183.

Several of the donors are registered lobbyists — for instance, Kenneth Kies, a prominent tax lobbyist whose clients include Pfizer Inc., General Electric and the American Council of Life Insurers,  has given $178,000 to candidates, parties and PACs this cycle. Kies said in an interview that in his view, “the practical impact of this decision was somewhat overstated.”

“I doubt that it will cause me to give a significant amount more,” Kies said. “I already felt like I was giving plenty. I get 50 or 100 emails a day with fundraising requests and that was true before the McCutcheon decision too.”

As a practical matter, since clients hire him to help with tax issues, Kies added that he’s “focused on the tax writing committees and congressional leadership and that really doesn’t change.”

Another lobbyist, Jeffrey MacKinnon, who has given $130,090 this cycle, all of it to Republicans, said he hoped to not give much more than he would have under the old limits. “[Y]ou can place more bets, y’know — small bets,” MacKinnon said. “It just means that you don’t have to worry as much at the end that you’ve gone over.” MacKinnon’s roster of blue-chip clients includes America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals and Comcast Corp.

But there’s little doubt that donors believe their gifts will open doors for them. John Catsimatidis, a New York City real estate developer and grocery store magnate and one of the few donors who gave money to candidates of both parties (though just 17 percent of his $184,400 has gone to Democrats or liberals). Catsimatidis said fixing Congress’ stark polarization was his biggest concern.

“I’m disappointed in all of this stuff going on in Washington,” he said. “I try to support good people. It’s all I can really ask for is to meet and greet (politicians) and have my voice heard.”
Misgivings about giving

Few donors on the list said they had concerns about the ruling’s effect, and those who did said they felt they had to donate anyway in order to counter the other side’s money.

While I’m totally devoted to free speech I keep wondering if there couldn’t be some boundaries,” said Pfautch.

Former Rep. Vic Fazio said that despite his abundant worries about the effects of McCutcheon and other court decision that have “opened the floodgates” to money in politics, he’ll keep giving.

“I’m a Democrat who wants to see my party win,” said Fazio, who is now a lobbyist and has a client dance card filled with health care, telecom and financial firms. “Not everybody has asked me for money” since the McCutcheon ruling, “but many do. It’s very hard to say no.” He had barely crested the old limit, having given $126,850 as of June 30 — but there were five months, and the heat of the campaign season, yet to go

DNC Treasurer Tobias said the new rules tilt the playing field toward the vastly wealthy — a category in which he does not put himself. “Pre-McCutcheon, I knew I could give as much federally regulated money as anyone else — and did. That was a good feeling. Suddenly, it’s not possible for someone like me to max out — that would be millions of dollars a year. So I’m going to wind up having to give even more than before, because there is so much at stake, while feeling I haven’t given enough.”

“Not a good feeling.”

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