Million dollar check club: Who’s writing big checks to super PACs


There's always been ways for big money to find its way into politics, but one of the changes ushered in by the super PAC era is the opportunity to flaunt it.

Instead of having to spread their influence around in donations to various committees, deep-pocketed donors can now show their influence with a flourish, writing seven figure checks — like the $1 million one, filings with Federal Election Commission made over the weekend show, that the National Air Traffic Controllers union gave last month to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing President Obama's reelection bid, or the $2 million that the pro-Republican American Crossroads got from Stealthy Wealthy giver Jerry Perenchio's "living trust." 

In the current election cycle, all super PACs have raised a total of $207.9 million, with some $76.8 million of that amount–about 37 percent–coming from a small group of donors with the means to give a million or more. So far in this campaign cycle, 42 individuals or organizations have written checks of $1 million or more to super PACs, according to data downloaded from Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money tracker.

By far the biggest donors have been Republicans: Another giver featured in Sunlight's Stealthy Wealthy series, Harold Simmons, has written two checks of $5 million each to American Crossroads and one for $1 million to the same PAC. His firm, Contran Corp., sent a $1 million check to American Crossroads last October, followed by another $1 million five days later.

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But when it comes to autographing big checks to super PACs, no one so far this year has surpassed the Adelson family, which almost singlehandedly underwrote Winning Our Future, the super PAC that backed the unsuccessful presidential bid of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Between January and March, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, cut three checks of $5 million each for the pro-Gingrich PAC and four checks of $2.5 million each. 

While Democrats are lagging in super PAC donations, they are not without benefactors capable of giving seven figures at a time: movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, another Stealthy Wealthy giver,  wrote a $2 million check last year to Priorities USA Action; Manhattan philanthropist Amy Goldman, the scion of a New York real estate family, has given a $1 million check to Planned Parenthood Votes and another to Priorities USA. Another $1 million donor to Priorities: controversial comedian Bill Maher, whose donation prompted protests from Sarah Palin.

Other highlights from the monthly financial disclosures that were due at midnight from federal candidates and campaigns:

Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mitt Romney, picked up $4.6 million in contributions, down about $4 million from the group's take the month before, a reflection possibly of donor fatigue now that Romney has the GOP nomination wrapped up. 

The biggest contribution came from Fort Worth investment manager John Kleinheinz. The manager of a $2 billion global hedge fund who specialized in telecom, health care and energy industries, Kleinheinz has been a steady contributor to GOP causes, data in Sunllight Foundation's Influence Explorer shows. But his single check of $1 million dollars to Restore Our Future surpassed all of his previous political giving, which Influence Explorer puts at just over $677,000 since 1994. Kleinheinz also once faced criminal mischief charges, according to Politico, after he "got into a dispute that culminated with him driving a photographer’s SUV into a pond."

The Romney PAC's second-largest donation, $985,000, came last month from another reliable Republican donor, billionaire Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm. On March 1, Romney named Hamm chairman of his Energy Policy Advisory Group; he is CEO of Continental Resources, which bills itself as "America's Oil Champion.". Forbes listed Hamm as the 78th richest person in the world as of Mar. 2012.

Restore our Future also got a $5,000 boost from the corporate coffers of "Pepsi MidAmerica" which says on its web site that it "distributes quality beverages in portions of Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee". While well-known corporations have generally been shy about donating, 7-Eleven, Inc. also got in the game last month, giving $25,000 to Hoosiers for Economic Growth and Jobs, a super PAC that backed Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican who lost his bid for reelection in a closely-contested primary election this month.


Thomas W. Smith, the octogenarian founder of Prescott Investments in Greenwich, Conn., helped underwrite two super PACs that are pushing tea party-style fiscal conservatives. Smith, who also serves as a director of Copart, an online auto auction house, gave $25,000 to Freedomworks and $50,000 to the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Smith is a generous GOP contributor. Influence Explorer data shows he's given more than $152,000 so far this cycle, including $30,000 to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican facing a largely union-financed recall election next month, and nearly $45,000 to help Republicans maintain control of the House and take over the Senate.


Heavyweight Republican donor Simmons, who's already given over $12 million to super PACs this cycle, added another million dollars to that total with a gift to American Crossroads last month. Simmons is the owner of Contran Corp., which also gave Crossroads $2 million in previous months.


Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting President Obama's reelection, had a mediocre month, bringing in just under $1.6 million, with most of it coming from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association PAC's $1 million check.