WASHINGTON — Forget about the poor, the unemployed and the sinking middle class participating in the democratic process.
The race for the presidency is increasingly being bankrolled by "1 percenters" — those among the richest of Americans.
Year-end campaign finance reports show that many of the nation's wealthiest individuals and their companies have written huge checks to Republican and Democratic "super committees" that are exempt from the usual $5,000 campaign donation limits.
Texas businessman Harold Simmons and his Contran Corp. have donated $7.5 million to two GOP committees. Las Vegas hotel casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his family have poured more than $10 million into a so-called super political action committee backing Newt Gingrich. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg gave $100,000 to one of several committees aiding Obama.
Partly as a result of the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that even corporations enjoy the right to free political speech, a 2002 congressional overhaul that was supposed to rid big money from national politics is fast becoming a distant memory. Not only are wealthy Americans serving as financial angels to presidential candidates, but companies also have begun to write multimillion-dollar checks, and some may be doing so secretly.
American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC founded by former Bush White House political guru Karl Rove, has raised $51 million to date, including $33 million garnered by a nonprofit arm that isn't required to disclose its donors. The groups have set a goal of collecting another $200 million to raise Republican prospects in next year's presidential and congressional elections.
Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine, says high-dollar donors have gotten active earlier than ever this year and are playing a bigger role — and that may not be an accident.
"If you think about the way the president is beginning to frame the campaign, presenting this as a campaign of the 99 percent against the 1 percent, that in some ways is adding fuel to the fire to keep these donors involved," he said.
Corrado also noted that outside groups have had a disproportionate impact this year because so many candidates, including Gingrich, have lacked "presidential-level money."
Gingrich's campaign raised $9.8 million and closed the year with $2.1 million in cash and $1.2 million in debt. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas raised $13.3 million in the fourth quarter and ended the year with $1.9 million in cash, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign raised $920,000 in the quarter and closed with $279,000 in cash.
"This has actually been a race where a large gift from an individual donor can fund an advertising campaign greater than a candidate's own campaign can muster," Corrado said of the super PACs' clout.
Restore Our Future, the super PAC raising unlimited donations to support Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, brought in nearly $18 million last year — none from donors of under $200.
Donors to the pro-Romney group included a cross-section of conservative businessmen, top executives of the private equity firm Bain Capital that Romney founded and used to make his fortune, and other investment houses, including Goldman Sachs.
Four companies founded by Frank VanderSloot, Romney's national finance co-chairman who has held fundraisers at his Idaho Falls ranch during both of Romney's presidential runs, each gave $250,000 to the PAC. Melaleuca Inc. and its affiliates sell vitamins and household products nationwide.
Others who underwrote the shadow campaign committee included Dallas businessman Harlan Crow and his Crow Holdings, who donated $150,000; billionaire Bill Koch of West Palm Beach, Fla., who along with his Oxbow Carbon Corp. dropped $1 million; major Republican fundraiser Paul Singer, a principal in Elliott Management Corp., who also donated $1 million, and Sam Zell, former owner of the bankrupt Tribune Co., who gave $50,000.
In the first four GOP contests, the super PACs have spent much of their money serving as attack dogs, independently blitzing the airwaves with negative ads that seem in perfect sync with the candidates' campaigns. In addition, wealthy backers are acting as "bundlers," using their connections to raise tens of millions of dollars for President Barack Obama and Romney.
Tuesday night's unveiling of the identities of donors to super PACs came hours after polls closed in the key Florida primary, meaning that voters had no idea who bankrolled more than $10 million in broadcast ads by Restore Our Future.
"This level of disclosure isn't just inadequate. It's laughable," Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York told reporters. "The voters deserve to know the ugly truth of who is behind these super PACs."
Schumer said Tuesday's disclosures are "focusing the public's attention on the rotten state of campaign finance," noting that 70 percent of the $18 million raised by Rove's American Crossroads came from donors of $1 million or more.
Joined by Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Al Franken of Minnesota, Schumer called on Congress to at least pass legislation requiring better disclosure. He said that the Senate Rules Committee will take testimony later this month from people affiliated with super PACs, as well as donors.
In 2010, Senate Democrats twice came within one vote of passing a bill to require all groups engaging in political spending to reveal donors of $1,000 or more and to require top officers of outside groups, as well as their leading donors, to appear on camera in any television ads vouching their approval.
In winning the White House in 2008, Obama rode a tide of small donations as his campaign raised $662 million.
Corrado said that, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, "what we're seeing in 2012 is a test of whether the development of broader financial participation in elections — the rise of small donors in elections — is going to continue to be encouraged, or if big money will once again become a central feature of the election."
If Romney wins the nomination, he predicted that his shadow super PAC would play a leading role in the general election.
(Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman contributed.)
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