More than 50 individuals and entities have shelled out at least $1 million apiece to big-money groups backing presidential candidates — with close to half of the big donors giving to a super PAC aligned with former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
With 15 months to go before Election Day, donors have already contributed $272.5 million to independent groups supporting the large Republican field, more than four times the $67 million raised through their official campaigns, according to a tally by The Washington Post.
In all, 58 million-dollar donors together were responsible for $120 million donated to GOP and Democratic super PACs by June 30 — more than 40 percent of the total amount raised by those groups.
Never before has so much money been donated by such a small number of people so early. The massive sums have empowered outside groups that face no contribution limits and are now serving as de facto arms of many campaigns.
“Clearly the action is with the super PACs and with people who can write seven-digit and bigger checks,” said Henry Barbour, a veteran GOP fundraiser based in Mississippi who is informally advising former Texas governor Rick Perry in his run. “It’s amazing, but a handful of people really can have a material impact on the race.”
Topping the list of mega-donors on the right is New York hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, who donated $11 million to a super PAC aligned with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Houston private equity investor Toby Neugebauer gave $10 million to another Cruz super PAC. Kelcy Warren, a Dallas energy executive and the national finance chairman for Perry’s campaign, gave $6 million to two pro-Perry super PACs.
Half a dozen donors have made $5 million contributions to Republican hopefuls, including Florida car magnate Norman Braman, who is backing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Dallas tech entrepreneur Darwin Deason, who is supporting Perry; and Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks, who is supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
While more money is flowing to Republican-allied PACs than to the official campaigns, the situation is the reverse on the Democratic side: 80 percent of the money raised to support Hillary Rodham Clinton and her rivals went directly to their campaigns.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has said he does not want the support of a super PAC.
But Clinton is flanked by her own wealthy allies who have the means to pump tens of millions into independent groups on her behalf. Already, eight have given $1 million to Priorities USA Action, one of her allied super PACs, which raised $15.6 million in all. The big backers include hedge-fund investor George Soros, media executive Haim Saban and film director Steven Spielberg.
For the first time, nearly every presidential contender is backed by a deep-pocketed ally — and, in many cases, several. The groups are run by longtime advisers and former aides to the White House hopefuls, who have edged closer to their aligned super PACs than previous candidates dared.
“There is now a new norm in how presidential candidates will run for office,” said David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, a group that advocates reducing the influence of the wealthy on politics. “It’s not about how much support they get from voters in Iowa and New Hampshire as the first benchmark. It’s about how much they can direct to these huge super PACs.”
Bush spent most of the year headlining high-dollar fundraisers for his allied super PAC, Right to Rise, helping it collect a record $103 million while maintaining that he had yet not decided whether to run.
The group hit its expected $100 million goal on June 30, the last day of the fundraising period, when it cashed 82 contributions totaling $3.5 million. Among them was a $1 million donation from Shahla Ansary, wife of former Iranian diplomat Hushang Ansary. He had given $1 million in February.
In all, 20 individuals and four companies donated at least $1 million to Right to Rise, with the largest sum coming from Coral Gables health-care executive Miguel Fernandez, who gave the super PAC more than $3 million.
Fernandez told the Wall Street Journal that he was not looking for any favors from Bush.
“I am sure there’s at least one [donor] that wants a solar power business and another who wants to build submarines,” Fernandez joked, according to the paper. “I have only given to Jeb because I think he has the right values.”
The super PACs supporting Bush’s rivals for the GOP nomination were largely financed by a few wealthy patrons.
Four groups called Keep the Promise that are supporting Cruz together raised more than $37 million, but 95 percent came from just seven contributors, including $15 million from the Wilks family of Cisco, Tex., which made billions designing hydraulic fracturing trucks.
Half of the $20 million raised by Unintimidated PAC, which is supporting Walker, came from two women: Hendricks and Marlene Ricketts, wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
Rubio’s allied super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, brought in slightly more than $16 million.
Nearly a third of it came from Braman, a longtime patron of the Florida senator. Another $3 million came from Lawrence Ellison, the chief technology officer of Oracle, while Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter, donated $2 million. Besilu Stables LLC, a Florida-based horse-racing operation owned by Florida businessman Benjamin Leon, gave $2.5 million.
America Leads, the super PAC supporting Chris Christie, raised $11 million. Hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, gave the group $2 million, and another $1 million came from the Winecup Gamble Ranch in Nevada, owned by former Reebok chief executive Paul Fireman.
A super PAC supporting former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee brought in a total of $3.6 million — $3 million of which came from Little Rock agribusiness executive Ronald M. Cameron.
Half of the $3.45 million raised by CARLY for America, which is backing former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, was donated by former Univision head A. Jerrold Perenchio.
The number of seven- and eight-figure checks flooding into the race alarms veteran party strategists, who worry that the power is moving away from the candidates to independent and unaccountable groups.
“You do not have a level playing field any longer,” said Fred Malek, a senior Republican fundraiser. “In my humble opinion, it pollutes the process. But since the law permits it, everyone is going to do it until the law changes.”
Almost everyone, that is. At the moment, the GOP field is led by a candidate who has said he doesn’t need a super PAC: real estate impresario Donald Trump, who claims to be worth more than $10 billion.