Here's a bit of perspective on the ever-rising cost of elections, and the big-money donors who finance them: Three of the country's wealthiest political contributors each saw their net worth grow in 2014 by more than $3.7 billion, the entire cost of the midterm elections.
And as the 2016 presidential election approaches, almost all of those donors have even more cash to burn. The only top political donor who lost money in 2014, Sheldon Adelson, still has a fortune greater than the annual gross domestic product of Zambia, so playing in U.S. politics remains well within his financial range.
The Bloomberg Billionaires Index tracks the daily gains and losses in the net worth of the financial elite, and with the final hours of trading for this year ticking away, we've reviewed the bottom line for 2014 for the politically active super-wealthy. In total, 11 of the donors that Bloomberg tracks added a combined $33 billion to their wealth in a single year. (The index does not include Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Politics parent company Bloomberg LP. He gave nearly $24 million to a mix of Democratic and Republican causes, with a good chunk going to his own group, Independence USA PAC.)
The tab for the House and Senate elections came to $3.7 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, and Laurene Powell Jobs each could have covered all of that with the wealth they accumulated in the past 12 months. James Simons and George Soros would have come pretty close.
Some of that wealth, combined with loosening campaign-finance restrictions and a political class growing ever more comfortable with the new world of virtually unlimited donations, could start flowing to campaigns in the next few months as candidates prepare for the 2016 presidential race. Wealthy donors will have even more giving options after Congress voted to raise the limits on how much individuals can give to political parties, creating a political landscape that horrifies some good-government groups.
They point to a reality: A wealthy donor can now almost singlehandedly bankroll a candidate, as Adelson did for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012, raising questions about whether these financial commitments ultimately will influence future policy.
“Our democracy just isn't going to survive in this type of atmosphere,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that advocates for stricter campaign-finance limits. “The United States, throughout history, has worked on a very delicate balance between capitalism in the economic sphere and democracy in the political sphere. We no longer have that balance. The economic sphere is going to smother and overwhelm the political sphere.”
David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that argues the limits on political spending are arbitrary, sees it differently. “Big money in politics can actually make the electorate better informed,” he said. Besides, he added, there are enough billionaires to go around. For example, “you've got billionaires funding gun control and billionaires paying for groups that oppose gun control. It's all pretty much a wash.”
The sheer amount of money some donors made on paper in 2014 rewrites the context of “big” money in politics. For a political race, a $1 million cash infusion could change the outcome. For America's big-money clique, it's a fraction of what some billionaires can make or lose in a single day.
The following are among the country's wealthiest people who also have a track record of giving to politicians.
Berkshire Hathaway's founder's net worth went up by $13.8 billion in 2014. That's more than 12 times what Democrats spent re-electing President Barack Obama in 2012. Buffett gives more like a millionaire than a billionaire, but when he does open his wallet, the cash usually goes to Democrats. In 2014 he stepped up his giving, writing six-figure checks in a gubernatorial race in his home state of Nebraska. He's made clear already that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is his likely pick in 2016 by giving $25,000, the self-imposed limit of Ready for Hillary, a political committee trying to lay the groundwork for the Democrat's expected presidential bid.
Oracle founder Ellison favors Republicans. His worth rose by $5.4 billion in 2014. He hosted a fundraiser at his home in California that headlined Senator Rand Paul, a potential 2016 hopeful from Kentucky.
Laurene Powell Jobs
The widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs saw her fortune grow by $3.8 billion. She doesn't have a history of big-time giving, but she's taken some initial steps into super-PAC land, a realm in which political groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts on elections, by contributing $500,000 in September to a committee that tried (in vain) to hold Democratic control of the Senate.
The Renaissance Technologies hedge-fund guru's net worth went up by $3.5 billion this year. He gives to Democrats—balancing out the company's Robert Mercer, a GOP megadonor.
The hedge-fund founder and reliable Democratic donor's worth increased by $3.1 billion in 2014. He spent a tiny fraction of it on political groups and candidates in the 2014 cycle, about $4 million, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure reports.
One of the original investors in Facebook, Parker saw his portfolio and other holdings go up by $1.9 billion this year. He's been a friend to candidates in both parties, writing checks to Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
Charles and David Koch
The fortunes of the Republican energy executives each went up by $538.9 million in the last 12 months. It's not clear how much they spent on politics in 2014; much of their political giving is believed to go to political nonprofits that don't disclose their spending or donations and together form what some call the “Kochtopus.” Each brother did give $2 million to Freedom Partners, the network's main super-PAC and one of the few to disclose donors.
The brokerage-house founder netted $426.4 million this year. He tends to give contributions directly to Republican candidates, to the tune of more than $500,000 since January 2013.
The Chicago-based hedge-fund manager's worth went up by $277 million this year. He's a regular on Republican super-PAC donor lists, giving more than $1 million to the Ending Spending Action Fund and almost that much to American Crossroads, a group founded with the guidance of former President George W. Bush's political adviser Karl Rove, for the 2014 races.
Steyer has stepped back from the hedge-fund world that made him a billionaire, but he still saw his fortune increase by $103 million this year. That easily offsets the $74 million he pumped into the elections this year, making him the cycle's No. 1 donor. Much of that money went into his own super-PAC, which he started to advance environmental causes by helping elect Democrats. He originally pitched the group as one that would attract other wealthy donors, but they didn't show up as he had hoped—and most of his candidates lost.
The Republican casino owner, who became a major financier of presidential contenders in 2012, including Gingrich, lost $8.8 billion this year. His Las Vegas Sands Corp. dropped 25 percent partly because his casinos in Macau saw their first losses since the market opened to foreign operators in 2002. Adelson and his family invested more than $90 million to help Republicans in the last presidential race with no positive returns. But don't feel too bad for Adelson. Even with his 2014 losses, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranks him as the 23rd richest person in the world.