Money flows through it


Gird yourselves Western folk: Those of you who live in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- all coveted 2012 presidential swing states -- are in for it. You'll endure the brunt of the negativity that is sure to flood the airwaves during this year's advertising campaign ... er, election season. And, as you've probably heard, it could be worse than ever, thanks to the multi-million dollar war chests that "independent" super PACs can now accumulate and spend freely, unburdened by the restrictions candidates themselves must follow, like accepting no more than $2,500 from individual campaign donors. 

We'll periodically check in on how money is flowing into races this year -- presidential and otherwise -- on this blog, through a Western lens. The day after Super Tuesday seemed as good a time as any to start. 

Mega-rich campaign donors to watch

"One of the interesting things we've learned during this campaign is how many really loopy billionaires this country has." -- New York Times columnist Gail Collins

After the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which ushered in the super PAC-era by striking down restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns, many fretted over the massive chunks of cash corporations, labor groups, and other special interest organizations would shell out to influence the electorate. But as it turns out, it's a handful of opinionated billionaires that are writing some of the heftiest checks. According to the Sunlight Foundation, "mega-donors," most of them individuals, contributed about half of what super PACs raised in 2011. And though most of them have donated to political causes for some time, they're giving substantially more than they used to. The Sunlight Foundation reports: In 2011, "37 individual and 9 organizations each gave $500,000 or more to super PACs, for a total of $48 million. The same individuals and organizations gave a combined $64 million to a range of state and federal candidates during the previous four years."

Here are quick snapshots of a few of these well-heeled politicos of interest to HCN readers, because of their geography or agenda:

Julian Robertson

Robertson is a New York hedge fund tycoon who tops the list of donors to Mitt Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, at $1.25 million so far. Interestingly, Robertson is also a climate hawk: Politico reports that he's donated a cool $60 million to the Environmental Defense Fund over the past 10 years, helping to put "cap-and-trade legislation on the map." He also donated $500,000 to help strike down Prop 23 in California in 2010, which would have quashed the state's effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. His generous support of Romney has prompted speculation that Mitt will flip-flop, again, on climate change if elected.

Frank VanderSloot

The Idaho Falls billionaire recently made a big splash on the intertubes when Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald took him to task for attempting to silence journalists and bloggers critical of his company by threatening them with lawsuits. (Melaleuca, the company VanderSloots heads, which sells vitamins, household and personal care products, has come under fire for shady marketing practices and being a pyramid scheme.) He's been a Romney cheerleader since Mitt's first White House bid, and Melaleuca subsidiaries have already donated $1 million to Restore Our Future. Though VanderSloot claims to have "many gay friends," the Mormon father of 14 funded a controversial billboard campaign in the late 1990s pressuring Idaho Public Television not to air a documentary about how teachers deal with homosexuality in the classroom. Keith Allred, who ran for governor in Idaho in 2010, recently told the Sacramento Bee: "More than anybody else in Idaho, Frank VanderSloot exerts political influence through political contributions. There is not even a close second."

Peter Thiel

Thiel, the founder of PayPal must be a lonely San Franciscan: a hard-core libertarian in a hyper-liberal sea. He's donated $2.6 million to Ron Paul's campaign, prompting Slate to ask: "Peter Thiel made a fortune investing in the right ventures at the right time. So why is he investing millions in a doomed presidential campaign?" The answer, it seems, is that Thiel's a true believer crafting a long-term strategy. "I think we're just trying to build a libertarian base for the next cycle," he told Slate. The New Yorker published a long-form profile of him last fall

Sheldon Adelson

The Las Vegas casino giant has almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich's campaign afloat, donating more than $10 million. He told Forbes that he's "against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing our elections. But as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it." His fondness for Gingrich over the others in the presidential field has mostly been attributed to their mutual unequivocal support for Israel. But Adelson tells Forbes that he's just as concerned about domestic issues, in particular the "socialist-style economy" he believes Obama promotes. 

Foster Friess

A born-again Christian from Wyoming who made his money managing mutual funds, Friess has bankrolled Rick Santorum to the tune of nearly $1 million (his unsavory comments about birth control have also been the source of campaign drama). Friess also funds the conservative website the Daily Caller, and his affinity for Santorum seems mainly faith-based.

Bill Koch

Paonia's own billionaire, Bill Koch -- Charles' and David's estranged brother -- is a coal, oil and gas magnate, who's inspired a whole lotta controversy in HCN's home turf by trying to swap some of his private land for 1,846 acres of BLM land bisecting his ranch. Koch and his company, Oxbow Carbon, have donated $1 million to Romney's super PAC. Koch stays out of the public eye, making it hard to dissect what drives his politics. 

A rich Utahn and mysterious Provo-based companies

Romney has done well among the well-heeled in Utah, not surprising given his Mormon faith and much trumpeted rescue of the Salt Lake City Olympics. David Lisonbee of Sandy, Utah, the founder of 4Life Research, a company that sells "immune system support products," has donated $500,000 to Restore Our Future. And two companies based in Provo that are suspected to be shells for Steven Lund, former CEO of the skin care and dietary supplement company Nu Skin, to funnel campaign money through, have donated $1 million each. 

What about the Democrats?

So far, Obama's super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has raised peanuts compared to Romney's: $4.5 million to $36.8 million. The biggest donor to date is Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who's given $2.6 million and was a major supporter in the 2008 campaign as well. 

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Image courtesy Flickr user Cory M Grenier.

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