Ali Lapp spoke of abortion and reproductive health when she tried to coax a donation out of Houston attorney Amber Mostyn for the super-political action committee helping Democrats win seats in Congress.
It worked: Mostyn gave House Majority PAC $1 million on top of her $200,000 contribution to Planned Parenthood Votes. That put Mostyn on a list of just 11 women giving $1 million or more to outside groups in the 18 months leading to Election Day.
“I appreciated the strategic way that she was talking to women like me,” Mostyn said in a phone interview. “She was very focused on the fact that there were negative things said during the Republican primary about women’s issues. I also liked the fact that there was a woman in charge of the PAC. She’s running the show, and she knows what she’s doing.”
Women named individually or as part of a married couple accounted for 16.5 percent of $272 million that the 100 biggest donors gave to outside groups, a Bloomberg review of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics found. The Washington-based nonprofit center’s list doesn’t include donations made after Oct. 17, which won’t be reported to the Federal Election Commission until next month.
The super-PAC showing by women is even more limited than their overall participation in campaign financing. About one-third of contributors in 2012 federal elections are women, and those donations account for 30 percent of the haul, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Women understand -- they, quote-unquote, get voting -- they get volunteering,” said Siobhan Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a Washington-based group dedicated to increasing the number of women in elected office. “They are completely tone deaf when it comes to the two most powerful political avenues that they could exercise: They don’t give politically, compared to men. And they don’t run.”
In a post-2010 election report, “Vote with Your Purse,” the Center for Responsive Politics and an affiliate of the Women’s Campaign Fund found that women made 21 percent of the contributions to political action committees. They plan a similar 2012 study.
Super-PACs are “the ultimate power play,” Bennett said, adding that she isn’t surprised by the low participation rate. “That fits better with how men think of politics.”
Mostyn surmises that pay and high-level careers help explain it. Twenty of the Fortune 500 companies -- 4 percent -- are led by women CEOs. Women earned about 79 cents for every $1 made by men, according to the 2009-11 American Community Survey, a poll of 9 million households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Mostyn’s husband and fellow trial attorney Steve Mostyn is one of the top contributors to Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC dedicated to helping re-elect President Barack Obama. Amber Mostyn, 41, says they decide contributions together.
“There’s a perception that women donors are just conduits for their husbands,” she said. “That’s not the case with us. We discuss every contribution -- he does not spend $1 million without telling me. But I’ve started to be more cognizant that some of these contributions are made in my name because I think it’s important for people to see that women are involved.”
The leading female super-donor is Miriam Adelson, who has given $24 million, including $10 million to Restore Our Future, a super-PAC backing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Adelson, who founded a drug-addiction clinic, is married to Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire whose $29 million in donations makes him the top super-PAC contributor of 2012.
Of $44.8 million contributed by women on the top-100 super-PAC donor list, about 70 percent -- thanks mostly to Miriam Adelson --went to pro-Republican groups.
The top female donor to Democratic-leaning super-PACs was Amy Goldman, an author and expert on seeds based in New York. Her $3.4 million in contributions mostly has gone to Priorities USA and Planned Parenthood Votes, a super-PAC aligned with the women’s community health organization.
Other top female super-donors include Annette Simmons, wife of Dallas-based businessman Harold Simmons, who gave $1.2 million in her name to pro-Republican groups, and Anne Cox Chambers, owner of media company Cox Enterprises, who gave $2.1 million to groups favoring Democrats.
Like their male counterparts, some women don’t merely write checks to a super-PAC -- they help run it.
A super-PAC that has spent about $1.2 million on Obama-boosting ads in recent weeks has one major donor, Rosemary Pritzker. The 30-year-old photographer who lives in New York and Boulder, Colorado, is a cousin of Obama campaign chairwoman Penny Pritzker and part of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain.
FEC records show Rosemary Pritzker gave $350,000 to the super-PAC Local Voices. The report of post-Oct. 17 donations will push her total up considerably, she said in a phone interview, while declining to reveal the figure.
Pritzker has helped produce some of the 26 different ads that showcase why voters are supporting Obama. The spots are running mostly on cable TV stations, including the History Channel, in markets where the presidential race is a toss-up.
One Pritzker-produced ad spotlights a U.S. Army veteran named Immy speaking of her support for Obama as scenes from her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, are shown.
“What I was seeing was people making attack ads or just preaching to the choir, and none of it was really hitting home for me,” Pritzker said. “I like our documentary style, with real people. I’ve basically spent every waking moment the last two and a half months working on this.”
While largely shunning super-PACs, new to this year’s presidential race, women have found other ways to participate in what is expected to be a $6 billion 2012 federal election.
They account for 38 percent of Obama’s 237 top-tier fundraisers, individuals who each have bundled together more than $500,000 in donations for his re-election effort.
“Bundling fits with how women understand giving,” said Bennett of the Women’s Campaign Fund. “They’re far more comfortable with a paradigm that’s based on networking, asking their friends and family to give to someone they believe in.”
Comparative numbers for Romney aren’t available. His campaign doesn’t release its bundler list and didn’t return requests for comment on the number of female bundlers. Romney reports only bundlers who are federally registered lobbyists, as required by law. Eight women are listed among the 63, or about 13 percent.
“The involvement of women in high levels of fundraising is strong and getting stronger each cycle,” said Bobbie Kilberg, who co-chairs Romney’s fundraising in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware with American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard.
She could be talking about her own history.
Kilberg started as a junior-level fundraiser for George H.W. Bush, a friend, before he ran for president. She was a member of President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election financial team, earning the top designation of “Ranger” because she had raised between $200,000 and $300,000.
Four years later, she says, she brought in more than $1 million for Republican Senator John McCain, whom Obama defeated. Now as a Romney finance chairwoman, Kilberg says she has helped raise more than $4.2 million.
In her day job, she is president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Romney’s campaign raised about $413 million in the 18 months leading to Oct. 17, according to FEC reports. Obama collected $644 million in the same period.
Overall, 34 percent of contributors to Romney’s campaign fund are women, compared with 44 percent to Obama’s campaign, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Some women Democrats have been shut out of the presidential race because Obama doesn’t allow registered lobbyists to raise money for his campaign.
They’re flexing their fundraising muscles in other races.
“I don’t have to go looking for candidates; they have ways of finding me,” said Heather Podesta, who raises money for Democrats in Senate and House races. She holds an e-mail list of 3,000 people from whom she can solicit money and has been fundraising since 2004, when friend Nancy Zirkin asked her to raise money for Senator John Kerry’s presidential run.
“I raised $23,000 and realized I can do this,” she said. “Then I started thinking that I needed to raise $100,000 to run with the big boys. I’ve been hooked ever since.”