WASHINGTON — The latest trend in an election year marked by gushers of money? Big spenders going solo to spread a message.
A billionaire investment broker is doling out millions to run a minute-long national ad telling Americans that he's voting Republican because the country is on a march toward socialism. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set aside $10 million of his personal fortune to help elect moderate candidates around the country. The founder of a Pennsylvania waste collection company is bombarding his state with mailings and billboards ripping Democratic President Barack Obama.
"I'm tired of my money going in with a pool of others," said Scott Wagner, the founder of Penn Waste Inc. and a high-dollar GOP donor branching off on his own. "I don't need some other organization distorting or not really standing up for the same message. I want my message out there."
There's no shortage of portals for that money, especially with the explosion of third-party groups — commonly known as super political action committees — that are raising and spending jaw-dropping millions upon millions. Candidates and political parties are foraging for every dollar, too, to pay for organizers on the ground, get-out-the-vote calls, glossy literature and, of course, wall-to-wall TV ads.
Thanks to recent federal court decisions, lax campaign finance laws are allowing wealthy individuals to spend millions of dollars each to influence House, Senate and presidential races via super PACs this year. That cash, much of which has been spent on television advertising, has pushed the cost of the presidential race to nearly $2 billion. Congressional races also are racking up a hefty tab.
Still, the go-it-alone efforts are starting to stand out.
An Associated Press analysis of campaign finance data reported to the Federal Election Commission found more than 100 registered super PACs that reporting having only a few individual donors. For some of those groups, just one person accounts for most of the money it receives and then spends, either transferring the cash to other political groups or using it for pricey advertisements.
Interactive Brokers Group founder Thomas Peterffy, a Connecticut billionaire, said he'll sink between $5 million and $10 million into a broadcast campaign. His ad, which is airing mostly on cable and also on network stations in pivotal states, features him speaking while boyhood photos from his native Hungary flash over the screen and he sounds alarms over the path his adopted country is on.
"It seems like people don't learn from the past," Peterffy says in a thick accent, with subtitles on screen to drive the point home. "That's why I'm voting Republican and putting this ad on television."
Peterffy is no newbie to the big-dollar politics. He's given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last decade to federal candidates and groups, on both sides of the spectrum but predominantly Republicans. He said he usually votes libertarian, but his 2012 giving includes maxed-out checks to Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Leaders of Republican-aligned super PACs are aggressively soliciting his money, but Peterffy said he's not in line with enough of their views.
"I am pro-choice. I am pro-environment," he told the AP last week. "As taxes are concerned, I would like to do away with all deductions and loopholes. To tell you frankly, I wouldn't mind paying a little higher rate if it leads to a balanced budget. This is a very different agenda than they seem to have. That's why I felt the need to go out on my own."
Because Peterffy is acting alone and doesn't mention any candidate, he said his lawyers advised him he won't have to report his spending to federal campaign regulators. Generally speaking, individuals have to report campaign ad expenses to federal regulators only if advocacy is tied to a specific candidate.
Other political freelancers aren't taking chances.
Bloomberg, the politically fickle New York City mayor, just launched his Independence USA PAC that will send help to middle-of-the-road candidates campaigning for House and Senate in the campaign's closing weeks.
"I've always believed in the need for more independent leadership, and this new effort will support candidates and causes that will help protect Americans from the scourge of gun violence, improve our schools, and advance our freedoms," Bloomberg said.
For some PACs, individual donors stand alone.
Take the group called "Unity 2012," for which 90 percent of its $1.1 million budget came from one man, Israeli media mogul Haim Saban, who owns the Spanish-language television network Univision. Unity 2012 eventually transferred nearly all of its cash to three Democratic super PACs, including $325,520 in June to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action.
Black Men Vote, which is running pro-Obama radio ads, got all of its money from Michel Prakazrel, a rap musician living in Florida.
Wagner, the Pennsylvania entrepreneur, isn't funneling his money into a fund with a carefully calibrated name.
The fine print on the 161,000 mailers he's sent out so far attribute the activity to "Scott R. Wagner" — he's registered that account with the FEC — and points recipients to his website for more. He scoffs at suggestions it's an exercise in vanity or a way to stage himself for a political campaign of his own, a scenario he discounts as remote.
The Wagner ads aren't gentle. One mailer shows a little girl holding a sign faulting Obama for the federal debt and saying her lunch money, allowance and retirement will all suffer as a result. "You jerk," it concludes, "No Obama Second Term. You're Fired!"
Wagner said he's willing to risk offending people, including his customers, by speaking his mind so publicly.
"If you don't have some enemies, that means you haven't stood up for something in your life," he said.
Bakst reported from Milwaukee.
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