Presidential politics has always been a rich man's game. But now, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United that upended decades of limits on campaign donations, financing a presidential race is the exclusive domain of the kind of megadonor whose portfolios make Mitt Romney look middle-class. "I have lots of money, and can give it legally now," Texas billionaire and top GOP moneyman Harold Simmons recently bragged to The Wall Street Journal. "Just never to Democrats."
In past elections, big donors like Simmons gave millions for advocacy groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. By law, such groups were only allowed to run issue ads – but instead they directly targeted John Kerry, drawing big fines from the Federal Elections Commission. Now, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, the wealthy can legally hand out unlimited sums to groups that openly campaign for a candidate, knowing that their "dark money" donations will be kept entirely secret. The billionaire Koch brothers, for instance, have reportedly pledged $60 million to defeat President Obama this year – but their off-the-book contributions don't appear in any FEC filings.
Even more money from megadonors is flowing into newly created Super PACs, which, unlike advocacy groups, can spend every cent they raise on direct attacks on an opponent. Under the new rules, the richest men in America are plying candidates with donations far beyond what Congress intended. "They can still give the maximum $2,500 directly to the campaign – and then turn around and give $25 million to the Super PAC," says Trevor Potter, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. A single patron can now prop up an entire candidacy, as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson did with a $20 million donation to the Super PAC backing Newt Gingrich.
The undisputed master of Super PAC money is Mitt Romney. In the primary season alone, Romney's rich friends invested $52 million in his Super PAC, Restore Our Future – a number that's expected to more than double in the coming months. This unprecedented infusion of money from America's monied elites underscores the radical transformation of the Republican Party, which has made defending the interests of 0.0001 percent the basis of its entire platform. "Money buys power," the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman observed recently, "and the increasing wealth of a tiny minority has effectively bought the allegiance of one of our two major political parties." In short, the political polarization and gridlock in Washington are a direct result of the GOP's capitulation to Big Money.
That capitulation is evident in Romney's campaign. Most of the megadonors backing his candidacy are elderly billionaires: Their median age is 66, and their median wealth is $1 billion. Each is looking for a payoff that will benefit his business interests, and they will all profit from Romney's pledge to eliminate inheritance taxes, extend the Bush tax cuts for the superwealthy – and then slash the top tax rate by another 20 percent. Romney has firmly joined the ranks of the economic nutcases who spout the lie of trickle-down economics. "Support from billionaires has always been the main thing keeping those charlatans and cranks in business," Krugman noted. "And now the same people effectively own a whole political party."
Here are the 16 donors who have given at least $1 million each to elect Romney – and what they expect in return for their investment:
THE COKE DEALER: William Koch
Position The "other" Koch brother, Bill sold his stake in Koch Industries to brothers David and Charles in the 1980s. He now runs Oxbow Carbon, a global dealer in petroleum coke, a cement-manufacturing fuel that's high in climate-warming carbon dioxide.
Fortune $4 billion (Forbes 400 rank: 81)
Past Donations Koch and his wife gave $70,000 to House Speaker John Boehner last year. Boehner "looks out for business interests," a Koch deputy explained.
Current Donations Gave $2 million to Romney's Super PAC, including $250,000 in his own name, $750,000 through Oxbow Carbon and another $1 million through a subsidiary. A sister company of Oxbow operates a Colorado mine that sells coal to the federal government – meaning that its campaign contribution is subsidized, in part, by taxpayers.
What He Wants To pollute for free. Koch's fortune is tied up in some of the nation's dirtiest industries. He blasts the EPA, which has been trying to crack down on carbon pollution, as "hyperaggressive."
How He Lives His wine collection, which includes 40,000 bottles, is worth $12 million. Owns a mansion in Palm Beach, a vacation villa in Cape Cod, four properties near Aspen worth $47.5 million, and a cattle ranch in Colorado decorated with an Old West ghost town that he bought for $3 million and moved to his land. Purchased the only known photograph of Billy the Kid.
THE WASTE BARON: Harold Simmons
Position Traffics in toxic chemicals and hazardous waste as head of Contran; owns one of the world's largest producers of titanium. A former corporate raider nicknamed "Ice Man," he pioneered the leveraged-buyout tactics that decimated American industry.
Fortune $9.8 billion (Forbes rank: 33)
Past Donations Spent $3 million to Swift-boat John Kerry in 2004, and another $2.8 million in 2008 on "issue ads" linking Obama to Sixties radical Bill Ayers. "If we had run more ads," he lamented, "we could have killed Obama."
Current Donations Before backing Romney with $800,000, Simmons made $1 million bets on Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. His total giving of $16.7 million makes him the GOP's second-largest investor after Adelson. Most of the cash went to American Crossroads, the Super PAC founded by Karl Rove that has close ties to the Romney campaign.
What He Wants Plans to store radioactive waste from 36 states in an underground dump in Texas; has been sued repeatedly by the Justice Department for failing to clean up contaminated Superfund sites. Calls Obama "the most dangerous American alive, because he would eliminate free enterprise in this country."
How He Lives Doles out $100 bills to panhandlers. Jets between his coastal estate in California, his Arkansas ranch stocked with 35 bears and 100 elk, and his $4 million mansion on a private lake in Dallas, surrounded by 17,000 tulips.
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