If you care about politics, it’s a good time to be a billionaire.
American elections have never exactly been an bargain-basement business, but there’s no question that more money is flowing from wealthy donors’ pockets into campaign coffers and television ads than ever before.
Since the seminal 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, political spending from outside groups – many of them either created or bankrolled by American billionaires – has skyrocketed from $193 million in 2004 and $338 million in 2008 to a whopping $1 billion in 2012.
And now, even more than before, individual candidates can be the beneficiaries of direct cash influxes from moneyed donors. Although a court ruling this week kept intact limits on how much an individual can give to a single federal candidate, it eliminated a cap on the total amount a donor can funnel to federal campaigns overall.
“This Supreme Court majority has enormously increased the ability of millionaires and billionaires to exercise distorting influence over our elections and corrupting influence over government decisions,” says Fred Wertheimer, the founder of the nonpartisan pro-campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21.
While there are certainly small donors pitching in, a tiny fraction of the nation’s most wealthy are dominating the scene. In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the nation’s top 100 individual donors to super PACs delivered 67 percent of all the money given to those groups during the 2012 election cycle.
These top donors are willing to spend millions, not just on splashy presidential campaigns but sometimes on relatively obscure special elections and primary challenges known only to the most dedicated election watchers. And if you live in a state with a big contested race – like North Carolina or Arkansas – you can bet that at least some of the nasty (or gauzy) television ads punctuating every commercial break are the direct result of money from a millionaire or billionaire.
So who are these deep-pocketed activists, and what makes them tick? We take an in-depth look at four of the biggest players here:
CHARLES AND DAVID KOCH
To Democrats, they're the ultimate bogeymen of money in politics. Senate Majority Harry Reid has bluntly accused them of "actually trying to buy the country." Google suggests "Koch brothers evil" as an autocompleted search term. They've even been portrayed in a paper-thinly veiled parody flick starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
Charles and David Koch, the owners of enormous Kansas-based petroleum refiner and goods conglomerate Koch Industries, have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into political organizations and campaigns. Two of the four sons of chemical engineering pioneer Fred Koch, the libertarian-leaning brothers' cavernous pockets have benefitted think tanks, medical research groups and cultural institutions nationwide. But - especially since founding political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity - they're most famous for their aggressive efforts to keep Democratic candidates out of office.
During the 2012 election, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity spent $122 million dollars in a bid to unseat President Barack Obama. They've reportedly spent more than $30 million already this cycle – almost exclusively on ads hammering Obamacare and the Democrats who backed it.
Cash like that can buy a lot of television ads; Kantar Media Intelligence/CMAG found that from January of 2013 through March of this year, the group aired an average of 1,625 spots in nine Senate races and 452 spots in nine House races. In North Carolina alone, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan has been on the business end of over seven million dollars in AFP advertising.
The mega-donors argue that their participation in the political process is meant to restore “the principles of a free society” under assault by Democrats fixated on government intervention that squashes innovation and job growth.
“The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you,” Charles Koch wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week. “This is the essence of big government and collectivism.”
Once the mayor of the nation’s largest city, Michael Bloomberg leapt to new heights on the political scene as the top backer of anti-gun advocates after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Last year, he shelled out six figures for a Super Bowl urging Americans to “demand a plan” for gun reforms. And his Independence USA PAC spent $3 million to keep NRA ally Debbie Halvorson from winning the Democratic primary for an Illinois House race, instead picking gun control backer Robin Kelly.
The son of a Boston bookkeeper, Bloomberg made his fortune by developing a revolutionary system for processing and distributing financial data. In 2002, he won his first term as New York’s mayor – a role he held until the beginning of this year. (His considerable fortune didn’t just flow to outside groups; he spent well over $100 million on his own controversial third run for the post.)
In 2012, Bloomberg gave the fifth most to outside spending groups of any individual in America, shelling out $13.7 million. This cycle, the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent has already jumped to second place, with $8.7 million already donated.
Bloomberg got a win in Illinois and held up Halvorson’s defeat as a warning to Democrats resistant to Bloomberg’s drive to change the nation’s gun laws. But legislation to enact federal firearm reforms is still little more than a wistful dream on Capitol Hill, where a background check compromise bill hit a wall last spring when several vulnerable Democratic lawmakers declined to support it.
Steyer may not have the name recognition of the other heavyweights on our list of oligarchs, but he’s got some serious financial firepower. The Center for Responsive Politics lists the environmentalist as the top individual donor to outside groups ,with Steyer shelling out more than $11 million last year. He’s pledged to raise $100 million to make climate change a top issue in the 2014 midterms.
The billionaire founder of a San Francisco hedge fund, Steyer has helped bankroll two energy-related ballot initiative campaigns in California and funded think-tank projects on energy policy. But he’s most vocal now in his vehement opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Last year in Massachusetts, Steyer spent a million dollars to pressure Democratic Rep. Steve Lynch to drop his support for the Keystone XL pipeline. Lynch lost the Democratic Senate primary to environmental ally Ed Markey, who also urged Steyer to butt out.
After that race, Steyer shoveled more than $8 million into Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s successful gubernatorial run in Virginia.
He told NBC’s Chuck Todd earlier this year that he “absolutely disagrees with” Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that threw open the doors for corporations to spend in candidate elections, but that he must work within the existing rules to ward off the destruction of the global environment.
Steyer’s eye-popping financial commitments aren’t going unnoticed by some GOP advocates who say that the Koch brothers are being unfairly tarred as big-money bad guys while Steyer flies under the radar despite writing comparable checks to active super PACs.
This week, Republican group American Commitment (led by Phil Kerpen, who previously served as vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity) launched a small ad buy for “Steyer Infection,” an ad that accused the billionaire and his brother Jim of “spending millions to finance campaigns that support liberals who will keep Harry Reid in charge of the Senate.”
Support from Adelson, an 80-year-old casino magnate and fierce defender of Israel, is so sought after that journalists dubbed his March GOP cattle call the “Adelson primary.”
The Las Vegas meeting of the Adelson-affiliated Republican Jewish Coalition drew possible presidential candidates who gushed about their admiration for a man who sunk nearly a hundred million bucks into the 2012 campaign.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie– as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- made the pilgrimage to Sin City as Adelson mulls how best to direct his fortune to ensure a Republican in the White House.
Adelson’s cause celebre has long been hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the staunch backing of Israel; he’s also taking up the fight against online gambling, and he’s lobbying for the Republican National Convention to be held in Las Vegas – the site of his Venetian casino and a city largely synonymous with the kind of bad behavior and careless spending vehemently opposed by the GOP.
The numbers show why he tends to get his way: Forbes names him the eighth richest man in the world and ballparks his net worth at just shy of $40 billion. (Over the last year, the magazine estimates, Adelson raked in an average of $32 million a day, making his nine-figure campaign contributions in 2012 comparable to pocket change.)
But as the current inhabitant of the White House makes clear, Adelson didn’t get his expensive wish in the last campaign. And much of his financial backing went to Republican thought leader / zoo enthusiast Newt Gingrich, whose campaign caught fire for mere weeks before fizzling. He’s reportedly aiming to back a more mainstream candidate in 2016 who can make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.