WASHINGTON — In the Republican primary struggle to define the most reliably conservative presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has put his money where his mouth is. Over the past six years and two presidential campaigns, Romney has donated at least $260,000 from his family charity foundation to GOP causes and influential conservative groups that could deepen his ties within the party and establish his credibility on the right.
Romney's campaign said there was no hidden motivation behind his contributions.
Romney gave $100,000 last year to the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, according to tax records of the Tyler Charitable Foundation, a multimillion dollar Boston-based charity headed by Romney and his wife, Ann. The former president has said publicly he will not endorse any candidate in the Republican primary, but the Romney campaign is studded with former Bush political veterans and appears to lead its rivals in financial support from former Bush fundraisers.
In 2008, Romney gave $25,000 to The Becket Fund, a religious rights legal aid group that is suing the Obama administration on behalf of a North Carolina Catholic college over federal rules requiring employer health plans to cover contraceptives and other birth control. Romney has also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Massachusetts conservative groups and to core Washington-based conservative think-tanks and publications, among them the Heritage Foundation research institute, the Federal Society legal interest group and a gala dinner for the National Review magazine website.
Romney's gifts came with no strings attached, according to many of the groups, and the Romney campaign says the former Massachusetts governor was simply aiding well-established organizations. GOP strategists and other campaign observers say the moves are smart politics for a candidate trying to establish his conservative bona fides and who has scorned his latest rival, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, as an "unreliable conservative." But some caution that Romney's gift giving could raise questions inside the party about whether he is trying to use his vast personal wealth to buy support on the right.
"He knows he's not looked at as coming from the trenches of the conservative movement, so this is his way of making an appeal," GOP consultant Greg Mueller said. "The question is how it will play among the conservative faithful."
A Romney campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said the candidate's donations were made with no "hint of a quid pro quo." She called the groups "public charities with worthy missions."
Officials at the Bush library would not discuss details of Romney's donation. Bush's spokesman, Freddy Ford, waved off any speculation about Romney's political motivation. "The former president is going to support whoever the Republican nominee is, but as he's said, he doesn't want to wade into the swamp" during the primaries, Ford said.
Romney may not expect an early endorsement, but his campaign has already benefitted from Bush's top talent. Romney's campaign strategists, Stu Stevens and Russell Schriefer, worked with the Bush-Cheney team in 2000 and 2004, and his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, was Bush's research director in the 2004 race. Washington lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, who represented Bush during the 2000 recount, is a senior adviser, and numerous other former Bush staffers are on the Romney team.
Romney's campaign finance team has also out-dueled Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other rivals to win the favor of top Bush fundraisers, known as "Pioneers" and "Rangers," who gave in excess of $100,000 in past presidential campaigns. The Houston Chronicle reported that Romney's former Bush supporters had raised $350,000 compared to Perry's $213,000 by late fall.
In recent weeks, as Gingrich's star rose, Romney questioned his conservative credentials, citing his consulting work for mortgage lending giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich responded by slamming the role of Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney once headed, in mass layoffs at some firms under its control.
Gingrich's own private charity, the Center for Health Transformation, has donated at least $167,000 since 2005 to traditional charities — ranging from $10,000 to Red Cross relief for Hurricane Katrina victims to $3,000 to the Winn Feline Foundation, a group promoting cat health. But Gingrich made no contributions to conservative groups — which Gingrich supporters say reflects his status as a lifelong conservative.
Gingrich's spokesman, R.C. Hammond, declined to comment on Romney's gifts to conservative groups, but was quick to stress Gingrich's pedigree on the right. "Every notable Republican achievement of recent years has either been driven by Newt or has his fingerprints on it," he said.
With a short history as a conservative political figure, Romney's largess to conservative causes is "definitely a smart move," said Bill Dal Col, former campaign manager for businessman Steve Forbes' two presidential tries. "He may be doing it with dollars but it gets him to the same level playing field as any conservative who has come up through the ranks."
Some diehard conservatives see Romney's gift giving as part of a measured effort to change his stripes. During his first presidential try in 2006, MassResistance, a Massachusetts group opposed to gay marriage, warned on its Internet blog of a "calculated effort by the Romney campaign to revise his history and portray the governor as far more conservative than the record indicates."
Presidential candidates are not normally known for using family charities to donate to interest groups within their political parties, but it has happened before. Dal Col said Forbes donated small amounts to some core conservative groups around the time he ran in GOP primaries in 1996 and 2000. Teresa Heinz Kerry was criticized by conservative groups for Heinz foundation donations to environmental groups in advance of Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential run as Democratic party nominee.
Romney's main outlet for charity is the Tyler foundation. It was originally called the Ann D. and Mitt Romney Charitable Foundation and renamed for a street where the couple once had a home in Belmont, Mass. The foundation, which listed $10 million in assets in 2010, has given more than $7 million in charity over the past decade.
Most of its assets come from direct grants from the Romneys or from Romney-owned stocks and other holdings. Until the most recent 2010 tax disclosure, the Tyler foundation had previously provided detailed lists of stock holdings the Romneys had bought and sold to increase the charity's funds. Earlier this year, an AP review of earlier Tyler holdings showed that some investments included companies whose interests conflicted with GOP positions — including firms tied to the Chinese government, companies that did business in Iran and firms working in stem cell research.
Romney had earlier declared that the blind trust lawyer overseeing Tyler's finances would end such investments. A trust official indicated those investments are being eliminated, but the most recent tax filing does not include details of any specific investments and lists only total holdings.
Most of the Romneys' monetary gifts have gone to non-political causes, including more than $4.7 million to the Mormon Church, reflecting the family's faith, and hundreds of thousands more to research on cancer and multiple sclerosis (which afflicts his wife, Ann); academics (Harvard Business School and Brigham Young University) and athletics (a variety of Olympic and other sports groups).
Between 1999 and 2004, the Romneys' giving went almost exclusively to non-political charities. Their gifts helped Boston and Massachusetts-based charities aiding education programs, deprived children and the homeless — although one $5,000 contribution to an AIDS relief group in 2004 was later criticized by conservative activists for supporting a gay rights agenda.
In 2005, around the time that Romney started laying plans for his first presidential campaign, Romney suddenly began directing contributions to influential conservative groups and programs. Late that year, Romney gave $25,000 to the Heritage Foundation and a similar sized donation to the Federalist Society. Tyler records show the Romney charity gave the groups $10,000 donations again the next year.
Both organizations are conservative think tanks that often act as incubators for the development of the GOP's political, legal and cultural ideas. Their boards include top names among conservative leaders and thinkers. Heritage trustees and managers include Steve Forbes, businessman Richard Mellon Scaife, former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Bush administration counsel David Addington. Federalist directors include Meese, former Bush Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and C. Boyden Gray, former counsel to President George H.W. Bush.
John Van Kannon, vice president of development at Heritage, said the organization does not make presidential endorsements, but he praised Romney for his gift. "We did not solicit his check, but we certainly appreciated it," he said. Van Kannon said he could not speculate on Romney's motivation, noting: "I would like to hope that no one who runs for president does things for calculation, but on the other hand I live in Washington."
Heritage health care experts developed an early relationship with Romney during his term as governor, providing analysis as his administration developed its health care plan for Massachusetts, Van Kannon said. Romney spoke about his plan during a 2006 presentation and later invited Heritage experts to a signing ceremony. Heritage's experts supported rules mandating that all state residents had to buy health care coverage, but Van Kannon said they now consider mandates to be bad policy and oppose them as part of the Obama administration's health care law.
"We're proud of our work with Gov. Romney on health care but we've changed our views on mandates," Van Kannon said.
The Federalist Society does not endorse candidates. Officials there did not return calls from The Associated Press. Former Nixon administration official Robert Bork, who is on the Federalist Society's board of visitors, is a policy adviser to Romney's campaign.
Similarly, the executive director at the Becket Fund, Kristina Arriaga, said Romney's 2008 donation of $25,000 would not result in his political endorsement. "We specialize only in religious liberty not politics," Arriaga said.
Romney's donations also won favor among several Massachusetts conservative groups that worked with him when he was governor. Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, said Romney's $10,000 check came "out of the blue" in 2007. The group also does not endorse candidates. Anderson said that despite Romney's financial help, she is personally uncertain whom she will vote for.
"I keep leaning toward him but I'm still on the fence," Anderson said. "He helped our cause a lot but as important as tax policy is, there's more to a presidential candidate that I have to consider. Whatever I decide, it won't be because he gave us $10,000."