Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you confidence. Just ask presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who’s all grins about the big bucks flowing his way these days. The $400 million his campaign has now raised feels like a lot of love to him, and he believes he’s only half-way done.
With all the GOP complaints about the stalled economic recovery, where does this kind of money come from? It’s hard to know precisely, because the 2012 election cycle offers donors more ways to give and more places to hide than any previous election. But here’s something we do know: Romney is the beneficiary of huge donations from a relatively small core group of billionaires who spread plenty of dough across the line-up of Republican primary contenders before they decided that Romney was their surest bet.
According to Forbes, 32 of America’s richest people – 8% of the Forbes 400 – have donated to the Mitt Romney-backing Super PAC, Restore Our Future. They are among the top 100 individual Super PAC donors that make up less than 4% of those contributing to candidates and campaigns this cycle, but account for more than 80% of the total money raised, says research cited by CNN Money. Of those making contributions of $500,000 and more, “the vast majority” support conservative candidates and causes.
Who are these people, and what are they thinking? We can look to three examples for clues.
1) Sheldon Adelson
The 79-year old casino magnate worth almost $18 billion is one of Romney’s most generous sponsors. He entered the limelight earlier this year when he and his wife propped up Newt Gingrich’s flailing campaign with more than $10 million. All told, he has contributed $36 million to Republican causes this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A hawkish supporter of Israel, Adelson hosted a $50,000 per plate fundraiser for Romney when he was in Israel last month.
But the most remarkable example of how “politics and profits are often intertwined for Mr. Adelson,” according to the New York Times, is his business interest in China. Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation has four successful casinos on the island of Macau and has been working for several years to put the pieces in place for a major resort on mainland China. Some of the complex relationships and agreements he developed along the way are now the focus of an FBI investigation.
Adelson may yet put as much as $100 million (or, as one insider suggested, “unlimited amounts”) to support the Republican ticket. He is motivated in part by the need to fight off what he says really scares him: “the redistribution of wealth, [which] is the path to more socialism.”
2) Harold Simmons
The 80-year old head of Contran Corporation, uses the ‘s’ word freely, himself. He told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that "any of these Republicans would make a better president than that socialist, Obama ... the most dangerous American alive… because he would eliminate free enterprise in this country."
He made sizeable contributions to both Rick Perry and Rick Santorum early in the Republican primary, before focusing his serious money on Romney. Simmons’ beef isn’t the “wealth distribution” that Adelson talks about. Rather, he wants to see an end to unfavorable tax policy and government regulations that are “smothering” his businesses. Contran Holdings includes a number of heavily-regulated firms in the waste-control and nuclear-waste disposal businesses, as well as chemical manufacturing.
Called the “Ice Man” as he built a fortune buying stock in underperforming companies in the 1970s and ‘80s, Simmons was formally accused of mishandling pension fund assets by the Labor Department in 1983. “That's when I started contributing to politicians with free-market and anti-regulation agendas," he said.
So far this cycle, he has put more than $18 million into conservative Super PACs and intends to double that amount by November. Forbes says that his net worth is estimated at $10 billion, up from an estimated $4.1 billion in 2006, before the recession smacked the rest of us.
3) Woody Johnson
A major booster for the Romney campaign is Woody Johnson, the 65 year old owner of the NY Jets and a long-time Republican loyalist who raised money for both John McCain and George W. Bush. Like Adelson and Simmons, Johnson may be more energized by the idea of getting Obama out of office than by the vision of getting Romney in. He is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune, valued at $13 billion. Six years ago, Johnson was identified by a Senate Committee as one of four individuals well connected in high places who engaged in a tax-avoidance scheme that diverted $40 billion annually from federal coffers. The scheme involved a complex web of secretive corporations and trusts in the Isle of Man. Johnson blamed his involvement on bad tax advice.
Today, Johnson heads Romney’s fundraising in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, where he’s known to travel from place to place on a Razor scooter. In May, during Donald Trump’s “birther” phase, he organized a “Dine with the Donald” fundraising promo for Romney. Recently, he announced that the Romney campaign has reached the half-way point in its projected fundraising goal of $800 million. Who but a pharmaceutical heir could re-energize donors and bundlers by saying that “if you feel tired now, you gotta go take a couple vitamins because we're gonna really have a strong push to the finish line."
More Money, More Problems
If $800 million sounds like a lot of money, consider this: it’s less than one-third of the $2.5 billion the Center for Responsive Politics predicts will be spent by Rs and Ds this presidential election cycle. Those are enough private sector dollars to make a serious investment in innovations to solve the economic and fiscal problems that ail us. But if the deep-pocket donors profiled here are any example, solving our collective challenges is not what this election is about.