Evan Vucci, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Just two dozen ultra-wealthy donors are behind a surge of million-dollar contributions to the new breed of political committees during the presidential campaign.
Millionaire and billionaire executives have unlocked their personal bank vaults to write seven-figure checks to support the campaigns of Democratic President Barack Obama and the Republicans vying to oppose him: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
More than half of the $60 million collected so far by the new group of independently run super political action committees supporting presidential candidates came from just 24 wealthy Americans, according to an Associated Press review of financial reports filed by the campaigns. The super-sized checks amount to $33 million, and in some cases, the contributions of $1 million or more represent most of the money that several super PACs have collected.
These outsized donations — more than 40 times the amount ordinary Americans can give directly to a politician — are allowed under the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.
The ruling made it possible for super PACs to raise and spend unlimited sums to support political campaigns. The groups must legally remain independent from the candidates they support, but many are staffed with former campaign aides with intimate knowledge of the campaigns' strategy.
Freed by the Citizens United case and other rulings that allowed unlimited donations with minimal disclosure, the mega-donors are pumping unprecedented amounts of cash to favored candidates. The lavish gifts are stoking negative campaign ad wars and making mega-donors essential to the tactics and operations of the super PACs.
"It's just so much easier for these people to make large contributions and play a much more prominent role than we've tended to see," said Brendan Glavin, a researcher with the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.
Here's a list of each presidential candidate's wealthiest supporters:
—Even among seven-figure donors, nobody approaches the $11 million that Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his family have given to Winning Our Future, the group supporting former House Speaker Gingrich, which has $13.1 million in total contributions. Adelson gave $5 million; his wife, Miriam, another $5 million. The rest came in smaller, but still sizeable amounts from Adelson's daughters, Sivan Ochshorn and Yasmin Lukatz, and Lukatz's husband, Oren. Gingrich has said Adelson and his family support his strong pro-Israel statements. Adelson has important business interests in China, and his casino is under federal investigation by the Justice Department and a civil probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The company denies wrongdoing.
—Winning Our Future also gained $1 million from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, a longtime Republican donor who was a key funder of the Swift Boat veterans' attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Simmons, whose interests range from energy to chemicals, so far has donated $12 million — both personally and through his firm, Contran — to American Crossroads, the Republican-leaning super PAC co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
—The co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, Peter Thiel, has given $2.6 million to Endorse Liberty, the group supporting Texas Rep. Paul. Nearly 70 percent of the group's money comes from Thiel, a Silicon Valley investor. An ardent supporter of Libertarian causes, Thiel has donated to gay rights and religious organizations and also helped fund the Committee to Protect Journalists. His Facebook investment alone is now reportedly worth $1.3 billion.
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