Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller is retiring this year after 30 years of serving West Virginia. Although he'd probably like to retire to a peaceful, non-political life after decades of elections, a new potential hobby for the affluent (like Rockefeller) has popped up in the last few years that didn't exist before he was elected to the West Virginia state legislature in 1966: Funding super PACs.
And, Rockefeller has taken to it nicely. In 2012, he gave $200,000 to Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC dedicated to helping Democrats win Senate race. (The name is pretty self explanatory.) In March 2014, Rockefeller gave another $250,000 to the group, a donation which landed him at 58th place on the Center for Responsive Politics' list of 2014's top donors to outside spending groups, a spot he and his wife share with Harold and Annette Simmons, Steve and Amber Mostyn, and several other well-known big political donors. Senate Majority PAC just began buying ad time for the Senate race to replace Rockefeller this month, a race where Democrats are considered major underdogs.
Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a political science professor at the Rockefeller(!) College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of Albany, couldn't think of any other sitting legislators who had given to super PACs either. The only politician who gave large sums of his personal wealth to outside groups while still serving was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City.
"You're safe characterizing this as unusual," he told me. "This isn't a common thing."
This Center for Responsive Politics' rankings were last updated on June 30, 2014, so Rockefeller's place in the donor standings will surely end soon (unless he gives A LOT more) but he still stands out among his colleagues on the Hill. While there are plenty of wealthy legislators who donated to candidates in their party, like Rep. Jared Polis, Andrew Mayersohn at the Center for Responsive Politics couldn't think of any sitting legislators who had made a big donation to outside spenders ala Rockefeller. (Other senators have given to Senate Majority PAC through their leadership PACs, but never through their personal bank account.)
The closest Congress has come to the big outside spending game prior to Rockefeller is via Donald Sussman, husband of Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree (D). Sussman has given millions to Democratic campaigns, outside groups and initiatives over the past few decades, although Pingree has never made an equally large donation herself.
It's not all that surprising that Rockefeller is the first senator to spend big on outside groups. As a Washington Post reporter wrote in 1985, soon after Rockefeller was elected to the Senate, "No one ever wants to talk issues when it comes to the Rockefellers. Sooner or later it always comes down to money and politics, money and houses, money and trust funds, and money."
His great-grandfather, also named John D. Rockefeller, was famous for amassing a fortune from the oil company he founded, Standard Oil. The family has used that fortune to great philanthropic effect, as evidenced from the massive list of buildings across the country prefaced with the word "Rockefeller."
And Rockefeller has already spent a portion of his vast family fortune on his own political campaigns. By 1985, he had spent about $25 million on statewide elections including his past three gubernatorial runs; he spent $12 million on the 1984 Senate race alone.
Don't expect a rush of wealthy politicians to follow in Rockefeller's footsteps, however.
"If you are a sitting politician," says Malbin, "you better not give to a super PAC that might turn around and spend in your race. If you're retiring, that makes it a lot easier. If you're running for re-election, and it's a close race, a senator or House member giving money to a super PAC would create problems."