An excruciating silence followed. “Excuse me,” Mitchell finally said, “I’m just trying to catch my breath from that, Mr. Friess, frankly. Let’s — let’s change the subject.”
That last part proved a bit difficult; Friess’s comment was all anyone wanted to ask his preferred candidate about for the rest of the week. “He’s not creepy,” Santorum said of Friess on Fox News that night. “He’s a good man. . . . You know, he told a bad, off-color joke, and he shouldn’t have done it.”
The prospect of a campaign having to spend days answering for an off-message benefactor is a new hazard on the 2012 campaign trail. According to Federal Election Commission filings released this past week, just five donors accounted for 25 percent of the money that flowed into the presidential race in January. Most of that money, like Freiss’s, has gone to the new breed of independent political action committees known as super PACs, which are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates but look closely after their interests. Friess, who in an e-mail Friday praised Santorum as a “tireless campaigner [with the] debate skills of a piranha,” personally accounts for more than a third of the Red White and Blue Fund’s war chest.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
, which threw out decades-old restrictions on corporate contributions to PACs, campaign finance reformers braced for an avalanche of lump-sum donations from corporations, unions and lobbying groups. They didn’t anticipate the particular variety of wealthy mega-donor that has emerged in this year’s Republican primary: a kind of entrepreneurial ideologue whose outspoken views seem like a cartoonish amplification of the candidate’s own.
Friess’s joke on MSNBC sat uncomfortably alongside Santorum’s statements on contraception. The former senator from Pennsylvania has said that as a Catholic, he is personally opposed to contraception, and he has criticized the Obama administration’s recent rule requiring religious institutions’ employee health-care plans to cover birth control, though he has supported other federal funding for family-planning services.
Top donors to the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future super PAC include John Paulson and Julian Robertson, hedge-funders from the politically toxic environs of Wall Street, and Frank VanderSloot, a Mormon vitamin-supplement magnate known in his home state of Idaho for campaigning against what he said were public television’s inappropriate efforts to educate children about same-sex marriage.