GOP Fields More Million-Dollar Arms

In the 2016 presidential race, multi-million-dollar donations matter more than ever.

The Adelson advantage.

Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the wake of court rulings deregulating campaign finance, political fundraising has shifted decisively toward the super rich. The new playing field is putting Democrats at a disadvantage heading into 2016.

Before the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and related rulings, campaigns focused on soliciting strictly regulated donations. Those regulated contributions still matter -- for the  2016 campaign they are capped at $2,700 per election per contributor. But party fundraisers are increasingly focused on securing large unregulated donations that flow to independent political committees allied with, but technically not controlled by, presidential campaigns.

The most sought-after of these donations contain six or seven zeros. And when it comes to million-dollar donations, Republicans rule.

Republicans have the edge in both disclosed and undisclosed mega-checks. Since 2002, 58 Republicans and 60 Democrats have written a (disclosed) check to a political group for $1 million or more, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and the Center for Responsive Politics. While the ranks of partisan mega-donors appear equal, the scope of their giving is not.

The Democrats donated a total of $287 million in contributions of $1 million or more between 2002 and 2014. Just 19 of those donors cut checks for more than $2 million at a time. In contrast, Republican donors generated almost $346 million in million-dollar contributions during the same period, 20 percent more. Thirty Republicans contributed more than $2 million with a single check.

With the stroke of a pen, a wealthy donor can elevate a candidate to compete against an opponent with broader financial support. In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, billionaires Foster Friess and Harold Simmons kept Rick Santorum's campaign from going under. Friess gave more than $2 million to Santorum's allied Super-PAC while Simmons tossed in another million. The cash infusions sustained the former Pennsylvania senator's candidacy for weeks.

Much of the Republican advantage results from a few individuals. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson have given more than $100 million to Republican committees since 2010 -- and millions more in undisclosed contributions.

Multiple Republican committees accept such donations, including elements of the sprawling empire of industrialists Charles and David Koch. News media reports stated that the Kochs are gearing up to distribute almost $900 million to Republican and conservative causes in the 2016 election cycle. American Crossroads, a Republican group founded in 2010 by Karl Rove, has two committees: One discloses contributors and the other doesn't. The Crossroads "twins" reported spending a combined $49 million in the 2014 elections, but only about $32 million was detailed in disclosure reports. (Democrats also have committees that shroud donor names, but they are playing catch-up.) In 2014, non-disclosing conservative groups spent $124 million on elections compared with $36 million spent by non-disclosing liberal groups.

Heading into the 2016 presidential election, that imbalance is troubling some Democrats, including organizers of Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC that helped re-elect President Barack Obama and is now backing the expected presidential bid of Hillary Clinton. Donors were slow to contribute to Priorities in the 2012 campaign, when it raised $79 million compared with $154 million donated to a Republican super-PAC organized to support Mitt Romney.

Priorities fundraisers are hoping to expand their donor pool for 2016. Former Obama aide Bill Burton, who helped get Priorities off the ground but has since left the group, said it's a time-consuming process. "It can take eight to ten meetings to get a donor to unlock a million dollar check," he said. "With each check you are trying to bring in, it has to have its own little campaign built around it in order to nail it down."

Bulging Republican war chests may prod more super-wealthy Democrats to donate. Another veteran party fundraiser said that donors who have generally shared Obama's disdain for unregulated donations are increasingly coming to accept that they can't afford to cede the advantage to Republicans -- no matter how much they dislike the new campaign finance regime. Other Democrats have already adapted to the new reality; 20 of the top Priorities donors in 2012 contributed $1 million or more. One Democrat, California investor Tom Steyer, spent almost $74 million on 2014 campaigns.

Clinton, who in 2008 never equaled Obama's appeal to small donors on the Internet, has a history of attracting big contributors. But neither the likely candidate nor her husband has worked under the new rules (or lack of them). Priorities started this year with $488,241 in the bank.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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