Rich donors play pivotal US primary role

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In the final few months of last year, Harold Simmons, a committed and wealthy conservative, outlaid about $8.6m of his and his companies’ money, with one single aim: to turf Barack Obama out of the White House in the 2012 presidential poll.

The Texas billionaire did not stop with one candidate. He made two $500,000 donations through his company, Contran, to a group supporting Ricky Perry, the Texas governor, and another $500,000 to backers of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

These donations were dwarfed, however, by the $7m he gave individually and through Contran to a campaign group cofounded by Karl Rove, the former adviser to George W. Bush, making it one of the largest political donations in recent US history.

When the Supreme Court decided in late 2010 that US corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, members of both political parties, including President Barack Obama, predicted that the decision would transform US politics.

Just how right they were was borne out by the disclosure on Tuesday of the names of wealthy donors like Mr Simmons to the new third-party campaign groups that have sprung up in the wake of the court’s decision.

About 60 wealthy individuals and companies gave more than $100,000 each to a “super-Pac” supporting Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday sealed his position as the Republican frontrunner for 2012.

The so-called super-Pacs are at the heart of the upheaval in this year’s campaign. Formed in the wake of the court decision, they are conventional political action committees supersized by their ability to take uncapped corporate donations, and spend their money right up to polling day. By contrast, individuals can give up to $only 2,500 to the candidates’s formal presidential campaigns.

Individuals have been able to fund outside groups in the past but the court has transformed campaigns by lifting restrictions on companies and the timing of advertisements which once would have been stopped well before polling day.

The only hitch for the super-Pacs is that they cannot co-ordinate spending with the candidates but that has not stopped them from playing a pivotal role in the Republican primaries.

The super-Pacs supporting both Mr Romney and Mr Gingrich are either run by former campaign associates or employ one-time staffers, casting doubts over their autonomy. “The independence of the super-Pacs is an utter farce,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The Romney super-Pac has raised $30m and allowed his campaign and its supporters to outspend Mr Gingrich, his main rival, five-to-one in Florida. Nearly three-quarters of the advertisements in Florida were negative attacks on Mr Gingrich funded by the Romney super-Pac.

The list of donors to the pro-Romney super-Pac, Restore Our Future, reads like a who’s who of the hedge fund world. Among the contributors were John Paulson, the billionaire famous for betting against the subprime mortgage market, and Paul Singer of Elliot Management.

Altogether, 10 individuals and companies gave $1m each to the Romney group, with a heavy weighting to the financial industry. They included a number of Mr Romney’s former colleagues in the buy-out firm he cofounded, Bain Capital.

The pro-Gingrich super-Pac, Winning Our Future, has just two significant donors – Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul, and his wife – who have reportedly each given $5m. Their donations were not disclosed in Tuesday’s filings, which covered the period until the end of last year. Without the Adelson cash, Mr Gingrich would be struggling to stay in the Republican race.

As for Mr Simmons, he is not new to politics. In 2004, he provided the bulk of the funds for the campaign which attacked the Vietnam war record of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, and helped ensure the re-election of Mr Bush.

Mr Rove’s two organisations have raised $51m, with a target of pulling in more than $200m before November’s election to spend against Mr Obama and Democratic candidates for Congress.

Most of the donors do not have to be declared as $33m of that money has been given to a body known as Crossroads GPS, which does not require disclosure. Mr Rove’s super-Pac, American Crossroads, raised $18m.

For Republicans, the success of the Crossroads groups is heartening as a super-Pac supporting Mr Obama, Priorities Action USA, has raised only $4.4m.

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