By Tim Dickinson
They're trying to buy a presidency - and they expect a big payoff on their investment
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.
REUTERS /FLOR CORDERO /LANDOV
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.
AP Photo/Houston Chronicle
THE McMANSIONEER: Bob Perry
Position Owner of Perry Homes, a megabuilder of high-end sprawl in Texas.
Fortune Estimated at $600 million
Past Donations Spent $4.5 million to Swift-boat John Kerry in 2004. A Texas good ol' boy, his relationship with Karl Rove stretches back 25 years. In the past decade, Perry has invested nearly $80 million in political candidates, including $7 million to American Crossroads in 2010.
Current Donations At $4 million, "Bobby Jack" is the top donor to Romney's Super PAC – including a $3 million lifeline in February, after Romney went for broke in Florida. The two have enjoyed profitable relations since 2005, when Romney chaired the Republican Governors Association. Perry has also given nearly $2.5 million to American Crossroads.
What He Wants Perry's top issue is "tort reform," which would limit the size of jury awards against homebuilders who do shoddy work. He knows political favors can be bought: He was a big donor to every justice on the Texas Supreme Court – known derisively as "the Perry Court" – which vacated an $800,000 judgment against Perry for crappy construction. A jury in the same case later hit Perry with $58 million in damages.
How He Lives A total recluse, Perry stays holed up in his 13,000-square-foot mansion in Houston. According to a friend, he's the kind of guy "you couldn't pick out in a grocery store."
Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
MR. FAIR AND NEWBALANCED: Jim Davis
Position Chairman of New Balance shoes
Fortune $1.8 billion (Forbes rank: 242)
Past Donations Davis is a high-roller for the Massachusetts GOP. Backed Romney's Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy in 1994; economic adviser on Romney's gubernatorial transition team in 2002.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Romney's Super PAC. The donation was so toxic for business that New Balance's CEO raced to Facebook to dismiss it as "a private donation and not a contribution from New Balance."
What He Wants A lucrative defense contract. Soldiers currently get a cash allowance to purchase sneakers made anywhere; New Balance has lobbied the Pentagon to buy its made-in-America shoes in bulk.
How He Lives Owns a 17,000-square-foot mansion worth $14 million in Newton, Massachusetts, and a summer estate in Gloucester.
Bill Marriott Jr.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
THE HOTEL TYCOONS: Richard Marriott and Bill Marriott Jr.
Position Heirs to the Marriott Hotel fortune
Ages 73, 80
Fortunes $1.7 billion and $1.6 billion (Forbes ranking: 312 and 331)
Past Donations Have given at least $1 million in lifetime political contributions, including hefty donations to prominent Democrats like senators Max Baucus and Charles Schumer.
Current Donations Have each given $1 million to Restore Our Future. Also served as top donors to the PAC that Romney used to sustain a skeleton campaign after his failed presidential bid in 2008, devoting $230,000 to the interim effort.
What They Want Bill has publicly backed immigration reform to create a legal pool of foreign-born workers for their hotels. Bemoaning cancellations during the recession, he has also lobbied Congress to force taxpayers to continue to subsidize luxury travel for executives of firms that receive federal bailouts. The Marriott fortune and Romney's are literally intertwined: Romney served twice on the Marriott board – most recently in 2011 – and is named Willard after Bill's dad, J. Willard Marriott Sr. (As a child, Romney summered at the Marriott compound on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire.)
How They Live Both own mansions in suburban Maryland ($5 million and 15,000 square feet for Bill, $4.3 million and 9.5 bathrooms for Richard). Inherited the family compound in New Hampshire, as well as a 4,200-acre ranch at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Marvin Orellana for The New York Times
THE BAIN BUDDY: Edward Conard
Position Ex-managing director of Bain Capital, Romney's private equity firm. Wrote defense of Wall Street deregulation and monstrous inequality, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.
Fortune Estimated in the nine figures, rivaling Romney's $250 million.
Past Donations Has supported Romney since he ran for the Senate in 1993; gave nearly $10,000 to Romney's PAC when he was governor of Massachusetts. Maximum donor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, obscuring his contribution through a shell corporation, W Spann LLC, that dissolved right before Romney's Super PAC was forced to reveal its donors. Conard came clean only after watchdogs noted that Spann shared an address with Bain. Tagged as a likely "bundler" for Romney donations, but the campaign will not disclose how much he has raised.
What He Wants To screw taxpayers. Like Romney and many hedge-fund managers, Conard profits from the "carried interest" loophole that allows him to pay half the tax rate that others do on the same income. The Buffett Rule, backed by Obama, would force him to pay his fair share, effectively doubling his taxes.
How He Lives Owns a $7 million triplex on the Upper East Side of New York. A Harvard MBA, Conard believes the economy is governed by "Darwinian survival of the fittest."
AP Photo/John Miller
THE PYRAMID SCHEMER: Frank VanderSloot
Position CEO of Melaleuca Inc., a "multilevel marketing" firm based in Idaho that sells off-brand cleaning products and nutritional supplements. Moonlights as a megarancher of cattle and quarter horses.
Fortune Melaleuca's annual revenues last year totaled $1 billion. VanderSloot is the 86th-largest private landowner in the United States, holding 110,448 acres.
Past Donations More than $500,000 to Republicans, including $8,100 to former GOP senator Larry Craig of Idaho.
Current Donations Melaleuca and three Asian subsidiaries gave a combined $1 million to Romney's Super PAC. VanderSloot also serves as a national finance co-chair of the Romney campaign.
What He Wants Fewer consumer protections. The FDA has rebuked Melaleuca for making "false and misleading" claims about its supplements, and the company has signed a consent decree agreeing to "not engage in the marketing and promotion of an illegal pyramid." VanderSloot is also an anti-gay crusader: He tried to kill a PBS program for promoting "the homosexual lifestyle," and gave big bucks to pass California's ban on same-sex marriage.
How He Lives Owns a 17-bedroom home in Idaho Falls. Breeds Angus cattle in Idaho and quarter horses in Utah.
Pete Stott/Nu Skin
THE OLYMPIC PARTNER: Steven Lund
Position Vice chairman and former CEO of Nu Skin enterprises, known as the "Mormon Amway."
Fortune Reported $31.9 million in Nu Skin stock in company's latest filing.
Past Donations More than $80,000 to Republicans since 1990, including $7,300 to GOP senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Current Donations Gave $2 million to Restore Our Future. Like Conard, Lund obscured his donation through two shell companies: a defunct publishing business he incorporated in 1997, and a firm at the same address registered to his son-in-law.
What He Wants A world safe for false advertising and marketing scams. Nu Skin has been charged by the Federal Trade Commission and state authorities with operating a pyramid scheme and making unsubstantiated claims about its cosmetics. In 1997, it was fined $1.5 million for violating a consent decree with the FTC. Romney has directly aided Lund's fortunes: As head of the Salt Lake Winter Games, he secured a $20 million sponsorship from Nu Skin, putting the Olympic name and credibility at the service of Nu Skin's sketchy products.
How He Lives Unlike most of Romney's moneymen, Lund avoids conspicuous consumption. His five-bedroom home in Provo, Utah, is valued at only $263,000. One indulgence: He owns a first-run edition of the Book of Mormon.
Julian Robertson Jr.
THE TAX DODGER: Julian Robertson Jr.
Position One of the first hedge-fund titans, Robertson ran Tiger Management Corp. He now takes an ownership stake in new hedge funds, known as "Tiger cubs," directed by former deputies.
Fortune $2.5 billion (Forbes rank: 166)
Past Donations More than $1.8 million in lifetime contributions, including $60,100 to John McCain in 2008 and donations to Wall Street-friendly senators like Joe Lieberman and Chuck Schumer.
Current Donations Gave $1.25 million to Restore Our Future – "one of the most important investments I've ever made."
What He Wants Unfairly low taxes. Robertson has embraced tax avoidance as a lifestyle: In 2000, despite living and working in Manhattan, he logged 182 days outside the city – often racing to flee town by midnight – to avoid paying local income tax. Also admits to seeking direct access to the president: "I would expect Mitt Romney to speak to me occasionally," he has said.
How He Lives Owns an apartment overlooking Central Park, estates in New Zealand and Long Island, and vacation hideaways in Sun Valley. Beat back a court challenge to his claim of nonresidency, robbing New York of $27 million in city taxes.
REUTERS /EDUARDO MUNOZ /LANDOV
GOLDMAN'S SUGAR DADDY: John Paulson
Position Hedge-fund colossus who profited from the nation's pain by shorting the housing market before the collapse. "I've never been involved in a trade with such unlimited upside," he bragged.
Fortune $12.5 billion (Forbes rank: 17) In 2010, Paulson made a record $5 billion haul on Wall Street by speculating on gold.
Past Donations Gave $250,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2010.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Romney's Super PAC. In April, hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Romney at his home in Manhattan that did not appear on the candidate's schedule.
What He Wants No federal restrictions on Wall Street gambling. Paulson was a key player in Goldman Sachs' infamous Abacus deal. The bank let him pick assets to short, then marketed those toxic securities as high-grade investments. Paulson cleared $1 billion on the rigged deal.
How He Lives Owns a 28,500-square-foot townhouse on the Upper East Side and a mansion in Southampton worth $40 million. The collapse of the housing market hit him hard: His eight-acre estate in Aspen, which he bought in 2010 for $24.5 million, is now worth only $15 million.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
THE VULTURE CAPITALIST: Paul Singer
Position Founder of Elliott Management, a hedge-fund firm that buys up "distressed debt" from Africa and South America, then squeezes countries to pay up.
Fortune $1 billion
Past Donations Has kicked in nearly $9 million total, including $3 million to the Republican Governors Association.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Romney's Super PAC. Pushed to get New Jersey governor Chris Christie to enter the race, but Romney – whose personal trust has $1 million invested with Singer's hedge fund – was a clear second choice.
What He Wants Needs backing from the U.S. government for his lawsuit to collect more than $2 billion from Argentina. Also loathes the Federal Reserve, which he calls a "group of inbred academics."
How He Lives Owns two $9 million ski chalets in Aspen and a luxury apartment on Central Park. Has been feted by Fortune as "a passionate defender of the one percent."
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THE QUANT MASTER: Robert Mercer
Position Co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a pioneer of the high-frequency "quantitative" trading that was implicated in the 2010 "flash crash" – one of the steepest one-day drops in Wall Street's history.
Fortune Made $125 million in 2011 alone.
Past Donations Financed a $1 million ad campaign to stop the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." Founded his own Super PAC, Concerned Taxpayers of America, to target Democrats who speak out against Wall Street.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Romney's Super PAC and $350,000 to the Club for Growth, an advocacy group devoted to lowering taxes for the wealthy.
What He Wants To squelch a proposed tax on stock transactions – a move that would limit his ability to game the market with algorithm-crunching computers.
How He Lives Owns a mansion on Long Island and a horse farm in Florida, where the gates alone cost more than $1 million. Sued the architect of his model railroad set – reportedly half the size of a basketball court – for $2 million.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
THE KING OF CHICAGO: Kenneth Griffin
Position CEO of Citadel LLC, a hedge fund that accounted for nearly eight percent of all U.S. trading before the crash.
Fortune $3 billion (Forbes rank: 171)
Past Donations A Chicago power broker, Griffin gave $200,000 to Rahm Emanuel's mayoral bid.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, plus another $1 million to American Crossroads. Believes that he and his fellow billionaires "actually have an insufficient influence" on the political process.
What He Wants An end to the Volcker Rule and Dodd-Frank, reforms that seek to rein in Wall Street excesses. Complains that "every bank in the United States is really under the thumb of the government." Has donated $1.5 million to Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers outfit that lobbies against environmental regulations.
How He Lives Held his wedding reception at Versailles. Owns a $7 million penthouse in Chicago, a $40 million apartment in New York, a mansion in Aspen and a vacation estate in Hawaii. Bought a Jasper Johns painting for $80 million.
L. Francis Rooney III
Alessia Giuliani-Vatican Pool/Getty Images
THE AMBASSADOR: L. Francis Rooney III
Position CEO of Rooney Holdings, a contracting firm that built stadiums for the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers, as well as the visitor center at the U.S. Capitol.
Fortune In a rare 2007 disclosure, reported personal income of more than $40 million in 18 months. His company is one of America's largest privately owned firms: Annual revenues have run as high as $1.8 billion.
Past Donations Gave $250,000 to George W. Bush's second inaugural. Served as a former Bush bundler, raising at least $500,000 for the GOP in 2004.
Current Donations Rooney Holdings gave $1 million to Restore Our Future. As a finance co-chair for the campaign, Rooney has also hosted two fundraisers: one at a yacht club, and another to kick off a "Victory" fund for Romney and the RNC.
What He Wants More building contracts and patronage. His firm was awarded deals to build the presidential libraries of both Bushes, and George W. appointed him as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
How He Lives Owns a $14.4 million waterfront estate in Naples, Florida, and a $2.4 million mansion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Purdue News Service
DR. DRILL: Steven Webster
Position Co-CEO and managing partner of Avista Capital, a private equity firm. Built his fortune in offshore drilling. His company, R&B Falcon, was the first owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf, unleashing the nation's worst environmental disaster.
Fortune Avista has more than $4 billion under management. Sold his drilling firm in an $8 billion deal.
Past Donations A former classmate of Romney at Harvard Business School, Webster gave $2,300 to Romney's presidential bid in 2007.
Current Donations Gave $1 million to Romney's Super PAC.
What He Wants To drill, baby, drill. In addition to financing oil exploration through his private equity firm, Webster sits on the boards of a half-dozen energy firms, including Basic Energy Services and Carrizo Oil & Gas.
How He Lives Owns an eight-bedroom, 7.5-bath mansion in Houston worth $4.7 million.