The big money coursing through American politics in the current primary contest is shattering all records. Through March 10, more than $245 million in Super PAC money had been spent on the 2016 presidential race, compared to less than $80 million at the same point in 2012.
"What's going on in the 2016 election is completely unprecedented," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a top campaign-finance watchdog. "Citizens United has turned our political system into a sandbox for the wealthiest people in the country to play in — and that's what they're doing."
The influx of cash warped the Republican race from the beginning. Super PACs stocked with mega-donor millionaires put a stamp of credibility on GOP candidates as they jockeyed for early momentum. "A smaller and smaller slice of the population has a major say in who runs, who they listen to," says Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's very alarming."
Unlimited Super PAC donations are now sustaining a pair of contenders in the race, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — who in other elections would have been knocked out by the supernova Trump campaign, fueled by can't-turn-away media coverage and massive personal wealth. (Acting as his own mega-donor, Trump has steered more than $17 million into his campaign.)
Who are the millionaires and billionaires pouring cash into Super PAC coffers? Below, we examine the nine individuals and families who have spent at least $2 million to support Cruz or Rubio, according to Federal Election Commission data crunched by the Center for Responsive Politics. (The fourth Republican still standing, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is also supported by a Super PAC, but its top donation maxes out at $1 million.)
Looking at the mega-donors aligned behind the candidates, clear themes emerge: Rubio is backed by staunch supporters of the nation of Israel, as well as hedge-fund titans who would gain from his plan to end taxation of investment income. Cruz depends on a smaller, more ideological cadre of donors. But their pet causes — eliminating the IRS, accelerating fracking, opposing gay rights — find loud expression in the candidate's stump speeches and policy proposals.
Despite the record sums being spent, big names are surprisingly absent from the donor rolls. Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson — who spent at least $98 million on the 2012 presidential race — has not donated to a Super PAC in 2016. Cash from the Koch brothers is also MIA this primary season. And representatives of both Adelson and the Kochs tell Rolling Stone they are not behind a top "dark-money" group spending millions to elect Rubio.
Money alone can't buy the GOP nomination, of course. Jeb Bush's Super PAC Right to Rise USA raised nearly $120 million for a campaign that netted Bush just four convention delegates. But the flood of cash from the super-rich, says Wertheimer, "creates the opportunity to corrupt government decisions for those who happen to invest in the winner" — decisions, he cautions, that "invariably come at the expense of the American people."
Meet the mega-donors trying to buy their guy into the White House.
(Rolling Stone requested interviews with each of the millionaires and billionaires featured here. Not one chose to participate.)
Team Marco Rubio
Super PAC: Conservative Solutions PAC
Total raised: $33 million
How much given: $6 million
Net worth: $1.8 billion
Where the money comes from: The son of a barber, raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Braman is a self-made billionaire. He owns nearly two dozen auto dealerships in Florida and Colorado, selling everything from downmarket Kias to luxury Bugattis, generating $1.8 billion in annual sales. A past owner of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he'd been a water boy, Braman sold the team in 1994 for $185 million.
How he lives: Braman insists, "I don't consider myself a fat cat." But he lives on Indian Creek Island, a hyper-exclusive, one-road development known as Miami's "billionaire bunker" and "the most expensive street in America"; neighbors include Carl Icahn and Julio Iglesias. Braman owns a world-class modern art collection — valued as high as $900 million — including works by Jasper Johns, Picasso and Alexander Calder. His yacht is the 174-foot "Kisses."
Why he gives: Braman is more than a mega-donor; he's Rubio's political patron. Rubio endeared himself to the billionaire as speaker of the Florida House, securing $5 million in state money for Braman's private cancer foundation, over a Jeb Bush veto. ("Marco, strongly wanted the Braman Cancer money," Bush memorialized in an email at the time.) Rubio also secured $80 million in state funding for a genomics center Braman favored at the private University of Miami. Braman, in turn, boosted the Rubios financially. He employed the politician's wife, Jeanette, at his charitable foundation; he funded a teaching post for Rubio at Florida International University with a $100,000 grant; and he later employed Rubio in a short, lucrative stint as a corporate attorney. Braman believes getting Rubio elected will be part of his "legacy." Rubio has recognized that the billionaire commands his attention: "When Norman Braman brings it [a proposal] to you, you take it seriously." What does Braman want? Israel is a top issue. He is a past president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation; his foundation has supported an Israeli settlement in the West Bank; he gave $10 million to Georgetown's Center for Jewish Civilization; and in 2010 he traveled with Sen.-elect Rubio on his first tour of Israel. Braman believes "a strong America is the greatest factor which insures a great Israel and a sustaining Israel." In his most famous floor speech, Rubio called for "unconditional" support of Israel, and he has fiercely criticized the Obama administration for a "foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel."
How much given: $4 million
Net worth: $47 billion (making him one of the world's ten richest people)
Where the money comes from: He's the founder and executive chairman of Oracle, the database company that grew out of a project commissioned by the CIA to become one of Silicon Valley's giants.
How he lives: Ellison owns a 23-acre estate in Woodside, California; his home is modeled after a Japanese imperial palace. He owns and flies two former military jets, including a Soviet MiG 29. A former America's Cup sailing victor, Ellison loves megayachts; he sold the 454-foot "Rising Sun" to David Geffen, buying the more dockable 288-foot "Musashi," named after a Samurai warrior, replete with a basketball court. In 2014, Ellison abandoned his long pursuit of an NBA franchise, settling instead for purchase of the Hawaiian island of Lanai for $300 million.
Why he gives: Ellison is a staunch Israel supporter; in 2014 he gave $9 million to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Rubio's tax proposals favor tech titans, ending taxes on capital gains, dividends and estates. Rubio also seeks lower corporate tax rates and to end the IRS's ability to tax overseas profits; Oracle has stockpiled nearly $40 billion offshore.
Benjamin Leon Jr.
Health care, horses
How much given: $2.5 million (via Besilu Stables)
Net worth: Undisclosed
Where the money comes from: A Cuban exile, Leon was an HMO pioneer in Florida, later founding Leon Medical Centers, which serves more than 40,000 patients in seven Medicare-only facilities in South Florida. Leon also founded (and later spun off) a Medicare Advantage insurance plan specific to his clinics. Medicare Advantage is a private insurance option in the federal entitlement program that costs the government more than traditional Medicare; taxpayers have covered more than $120 billion in excess costs since 2004.
How he lives: Son Benjamin Leon III now runs the health business. Leon Jr. focuses on breeding Paso Fino and thoroughbred horses at his Besilu Stables. Putting his $2.5 million investment in the GOP horserace in perspective: Leon spent $8.5 million for the racehorse Royal Delta in 2011. Leon is selling his waterfront estate in Coral Gables for $18.9 million. He has a 36-foot yacht called the "Luna Rossa."
Why he gives: Rubio is a committed defender of Medicare Advantage, which has been the target of Obamacare cost-cutting reforms. (Leon Medical Centers has lobbied heavily, including on Medicare issues, spending $690,000 during the Obama years.) Leon has faced other legal problems: In 2013, a whistleblower lawsuit accused Leon Medical Centers of violating federal anti-kickback laws by offering free luxury transportation and food to lure healthy, high-profit Medicare Advantage patients. (The suit was ultimately dismissed.) Leon and Rubio additionally align on Cuba policy: Leon donates to the hardline Cuba Democracy Advocates; Rubio advocates a Cold War-style approach to Cuban relations, sanctions.
How much given: $2.5 million
Net worth: $2.2 billion
Where the money comes from: Singer runs Elliott Capital Management — a hedge fund with more than $20 billion in assets. Derided as a "vulture capitalist," Singer's niche is buying the defaulted-on debt of poor countries for pennies on the dollar, and then suing in U.S. courts to exact payment. In 2014, Singer's firm forced Argentina to default — for a second time — over bonds Singer bought on the cheap after the country's earlier default in 2001. In March, Singer settled with Argentina for $2.28 billion — a return of at least 369 percent on his original investment. In a similar strategy, Singer's hedge fund took a huge stake in Lehman Brothers debt at the depths of its wreckage, profiting from federal interventions to halt the nation's economic free-fall. Singer is also invested in oil: One of his funds owns an $860 million stake in Hess, which fracks in North Dakota's Bakken Shale.
How he lives: Lauded by Fortune as "a passionate defender of the one percent," Singer lives in a luxury apartment at the Beresford on Central Park West, and owns a pair of ski chalets in Snowmass Village (Aspen) worth a combined $12.7 million.
Why he gives: Singer is one of the GOP's top moneymen. A member of the Koch donor network, Singer is nonetheless a social liberal on causes like gay marriage. (His son, a Massachusetts doctor, is married to a man.) Singer has long backed establishment candidates including George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. In a letter to fellow GOP donors, Singer touted Rubio's ability to "navigate this complex primary process, and still be in a position to defeat Secretary Clinton in November 2016." Singer is a member of the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, which fought for Wall Street deregulation in the buildup to the 2008 financial crash. Rubio wants to repeal Dodd-Frank. Singer would benefit extravagantly from Rubio's tax plan (zero tax on capital gains, dividends and estates). Singer is another heavyweight in pro-Israel politics: He serves on the Republican Jewish Coalition, traveled with George W. Bush to Israel to celebrate its 60th anniversary, and wrote of Rubio, "He will make it clear to Israel's adversaries that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish State." In addition, Singer chairs the Manhattan Institute, which promotes fossil fuels, contests climate science, and argues that limiting global temperature rise is "hopeless." Rubio insists action on climate is not worth the economic cost.
How much given: $2.6 million
Net worth: $7.6 billion (making him the richest man in Illinois)
Where the money comes from: Griffin runs the massively profitable, highly leveraged Citadel hedge fund, which he founded straight out of Harvard, where he used to trade bonds from his dorm. Now managing $24 billion, Citadel is a longtime giant in high-frequency trading: According to a 2014 SEC filing, "On an average day, Citadel accounts for over 14 percent of U.S. listed equity volume." Citadel recently hired former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke as senior adviser.
How he lives: In a 2015 divorce filing, Griffin's now ex-wife, Anne Dias, claimed her husband's monthly after-tax income "averages over $68.5 million"; she reportedly sought $1 million a month in child support. Griffin recently spent $290 million on a real-estate buying binge that included two floors of the Waldorf Astoria in Chicago. In happier times, Griffin held his wedding reception at Versailles, where Donna Summer performed. He once bought a Jasper Johns for $80 million. He hired Katy Perry to perform at Citadel's 25th birthday party. Owns a ski chalet in Aspen worth $8.5 million.
Why he gives: A member of the Koch donor network, Griffin said he shares the brothers' "fundamental belief that economic freedom is core to the ethos of our country." Griffin has declared that the ultra-wealthy have "insufficient influence" on the American political process. (Griffin reportedly gave $13 million to help elect Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2014 and more than $1 million to support former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in his reelection bid as mayor of Chicago.) Like Singer, Griffin is a member of the anti-Dodd-Frank Committee on Capital Markets Regulation. He testified after the 2008 crash, "It is not my belief we need greater government regulation of hedge funds with respect to the systemic risk they create." Since 2010, Citadel has spent more than $2.5 million lobbying the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Congress on financial regulation and tax issues. Griffin and his heirs would reap billions from Rubio's tax plans. Endorsing the Florida senator, Griffin said, "Marco Rubio has the vision of where America needs to go."
Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter
How much given: $2 million (donation is in the name of wife, Laura)
Net worth: $3.7 billion
Where the money comes from: He's a self-made billionaire. An Israeli émigré, Perlmutter made profitable bets on struggling brands Coleco (Cabbage Patch dolls) and Remington (nose-hair trimmers) before seizing control of bankrupt Marvel comics in the late Nineties. He sold to Disney in 2009 for $4 billion, netting $1.4 billion in cash and stock. Notoriously stingy and gruff, Perlmutter reportedly insulted A-list talent with lowball contract offers and clashed with African-American female executives. Perlmutter was sidelined by Disney in 2015.
How he lives: Perlmutter owns luxury residences in Palm Beach (a $3.2 million condo) and Manhattan. The Perlmutters have been sued repeatedly in a bitter dispute over control of the Palm Beach tennis club they're members of. Ike Perlmutter is basically a hermit — the last known photo of the man dates from 1985. He allegedly wore a false mustache and fake glasses to attend, incognito, the premiere of Iron Man. He reportedly has a concealed-carry permit in Florida.
How he aligns with the candidate: Perlmutter is another strong backer of Israel. He was born in what's now Israel and is a veteran of the Six-Day War.
Rubio also benefits from a "dark-money" group, allied with his Super PAC, called the Conservative Solutions Project. The group has raised in excess of $15 million and spent lavishly on Rubio-focused TV ads in early contests like Iowa, as well producing a big data dive into the demographics of primary-state voters.
Campaign watchdogs believe the group is operating illegally. Political nonprofits that do not disclose their donors are obligated to work for the "social welfare." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint with the FEC accusing the group of "abusing its tax-exempt status" by operating "almost entirely for the political advancement and private benefit of a single candidate."
"For all intents and purposes it's a major component of his campaign," Bookbinder, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington executive director tells Rolling Stone. Given the toothlessness of recent FEC and IRS enforcement, however, the Conservative Solutions Project will likely "get away with" what Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, calls "massive illegal campaign spending." (The group has denied wrongdoing, insisting, "Conservative Solutions Project, as a 501(c)(4), is not about any one specific elected official or candidate.")
The source of this funding is truly opaque. Some have speculated that the Conservative Solutions Project is a vehicle for contributions by Sheldon Adelson, a staunch backer of Israel whose newspaper endorsed Rubio in Nevada. This alignment has been campaign fodder since October, when Donald Trump taunted on Twitter, "Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!" But Andy Abboud, senior vice president for government relations at the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and the Adelson family's top political fixer, tells Rolling Stone that neither Adelson nor his businesses are the source of that money. "There has been zero contributions," Abboud wrote in an email.
A representative for the Koch brothers also insists that the money didn't come from them. Asked if any part of the Koch network was behind the secret millions, Rebecca Coffman, communications manager for Freedom Partners, the Kochs' political arm, replied, "The answer to your question is no."
Team Ted Cruz
Super PACs: Three connected Super PACs — Keep the Future I, II and III — plus a half-dozen smaller ones
Total raised: $47 million
How much given: $11 million
Net worth: Undisclosed billions
Where the money comes from: Mercer is co-CEO of Long Island hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, which relies on computer algorithms for "very high frequency" trading. One of RenTec's richest funds strictly trades the wealth of its employees. Mercer is also an investor in Cambridge Analytica — a big data firm that specializes in voter targeting.
How he lives: Mercer owns a Long Island mansion — the Owl's Nest — replete with a "pistol range" and a model railway that cost $2.7 million, according to court records. Mercer is a gun collector, reportedly with an affinity for machine guns. He was recently sued by his house staff for failing to pay overtime and issuing $10 "demerits" for "failing to replace shampoos and other toiletries if there was an amount of less than one-third of a bottle remaining," "failing to level pictures" and "improperly counting beverages." Reclusive, Mercer once gave an hour-long speech, joking after ten minutes that it was more than he usually spoke in a week, adding he's always loved the "solitude of the computer lab late at night." At his most public, Mercer has participated in the World Series of Poker tournament. He has a superyacht: the 203-foot "Sea Owl."
Why he gives: Mercer is one of the top moneymen in American politics. He's a member of the Koch network — he gave $2.5 million to Freedom Partners Action Fund in 2014. He's donated at least $1 million to the Heritage Foundation, where his daughter is a trustee. Mercer's pet issues are Ted Cruz's. The Senate has accused Mercer's hedge fund of abusive tax avoidance (misclassifying high-tax, short-term capital gains as low-tax, long-term gains) costing U.S. taxpayers some $6.8 billion; Ted Cruz calls for abolition of the IRS, and a single flat tax on all income. Mercer has given more than $1.7 million to the Heartland Institute, which promotes climate denial; Cruz parrots Heartland's talking points. Mercer is a gold bug; Cruz calls for a return to the gold standard. RenTec has lobbied against Dodd Frank; Cruz calls for its repeal. Mercer donated $2 million to John Bolton's Super PAC in 2015; Cruz has floated Bolton — the neocon former UN ambassador — as a potential secretary of state.
Oil, private equity
How much given: $10 million
Net worth: Undisclosed, reportedly a billionaire
Where the money comes from: Neugebauer cofounded Quantum Energy Partners, a Houston-based private-equity firm that invests in oil and gas fracking. He is also a director of QR Energy, which invests in conventional oil and gas. Neugebauer met Cruz through the candidate's wife, Heidi, the Goldman Sachs executive. "Toby is a close friend," Cruz has said.
How he lives: In 2014, Neugebauer moved to the Dorado Beach Resort, an enclave in Puerto Rico. The U.S. commonwealth offers full-time residents a massive tax break on mainland investment income. (Neugebauer has insisted the move was motivated by quality schools.) The family enjoys kite surfing and heli-skiing in Canada. Neugebauer reportedly owns a ranch in East Texas with a nine-hole golf course. No stranger to politics — he is the son of Rep. Randy Neugebauer — Toby has often loaned his private jet to Texas politicians as an in-kind donation.
Why he gives: Invested heavily in the North Texas Barnett Shale, Neugebauer owes much of his fortune to fracking. Cruz argues fracking is the nation's key to prosperity. "If you take a look at a map of the U.S. — our office took every county in the country and color coded it — for whether median income had gone up or gone down. It's quite striking," Cruz said at the Heritage Foundation last summer. "That map looks almost exactly like a geological map of shale formations across this country."
The Wilks brothers: Farris and Dan
Ages: 64, 59
How much given: $15 million
Net worth: $1.3 billion each
Where the money comes from: Former brickmasons in Cisco, Texas, the Wilks brothers built a fortune in the West Texas oil boom with a fracking and oil-services company, Frac Tech, sold in 2011 for $3.5 billion. The brothers are now on a ranch-buying binge, with half a million acres in their holdings.
How they live: The brothers are religious fundamentalists. Farris Wilks runs the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day Church, where parishioners are taught that "the Bible, as originally given, was true and correct in every scientific and historical detail." Women are reportedly forbidden from speaking during worship. Dan has said he wants to "bring the Bible back into the school." Not biblically modest is the fact that Farris paid $16 million for a ski chalet at Snowmass Village. Dan owns two Aspen homes valued at $11 million combined. The pair travel to to their Montana ranchland in an 18-passenger private jet.
Why they give: The Wilks brothers, in addition to their fracking interests, are furious about gay marriage. Farris Wilks calls homosexuality "a perversion tantamount to bestiality, pedophilia and incest" and the brothers supported Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis in her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Dan calls Cruz "a leader that will stand up for biblical morals." Cruz has railed against a gay "jihad" on biblical teaching, and blasted the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling as "fundamentally illegitimate" and "lawless," even comparing the justices to Nazis who say, "We wear the jackboot, you must obey us."