Million-Dollar Donations Fuel Super-PACs' New Dominance

More than a year before the election, super-PACs are quickly approaching the fundraising levels of the entire 2012 presidential race.

About 60 people have already donated at least $1 million to independent political committees supporting Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls in what promises to be the most expensive election ever.

The number of major contributions, drawn from Wall Street to oil country to Silicon Valley, underscores the breadth of wealth that candidates can tap into for the 2016 election. So-called super-PACs and other outside groups raised more than $250 million during the first half of this year, according to filings Friday with the U.S. Federal Election Commission. 

That amount far exceeds what was raised during the same period leading up to the 2012 race and is fast approaching the $374 million spent by super-PACs on the presidential campaign during the entire 2012 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"These groups have gotten off to a much faster start than they have in the past," said Brendan Glavin of the Campaign Finance Institute, a research group affiliated with George Washington University. "What will remain to be seen is how much can they go back to these people? Will they be willing to give again?"

That the groups raised a lot of money wasn't a surprise. Right to Rise USA, for example, had announced in early July that it had collected $103 million to support Republican Jeb Bush. Friday's filings, however, gave the first look into how giving has changed since the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for super-PACs. Political entities that, unlike candidates' official campaign committees, can raise funds in unlimited amounts, super PACs must disclose their donors, can spend directly on campaign advocacy as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate, though some are run by former aides or associates of the candidates.

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The aggressiveness with which super-PACs are raising funds also shows that the caution first displayed by campaigns following the 2010 decision has fallen away. At this point in 2011, only one of the 12 Republican contenders had a super-PAC. That was Mitt Romney, whose super-PAC's $12 million haul was less than the $18 million raised by his official campaign at that point.

During 2011 and 2012, super-PACs supporting Romney had 30 donors giving at least $1 million while a group behind President Barack Obama had 35 big givers.

This time around, the pro-Bush group Right to Rise, which raised more than any other super-PAC, relied on two dozen individuals and corporations to contribute at least $1 million and another 22 that gave at least $500,000. The largest single donor was Mike Fernandez, chairman of private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners in Coral Gables, Florida, who donated more than $3 million.

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For some candidates, the generosity of a few benefactors is fueling much of their effort. Super-PACs behind Senator Ted Cruz of Texas raised a combined $37.83 million. Robert Mercer, a hedge fund manager and the biggest individual donor to any super-PAC thus far, gave $11 million, and Toby Neugebauer, co-founder of Quantum Energy Partners, a Houston private-equity firm that oversees more than $7 billion., gave $10 million.

(Gregory Giroux and Zachary Mider contributed to this report.) 

CORRECTION: Earlier versions of the graphics were updated to include donations to the 527 New Day for America and donations from political committees to the super-PAC Priorities USA Action.

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