(See a full list of the biggest donors to the super PACs backing each presidential candidate.)
Simmons is part of a rarefied group of millionaires and billionaires acting as kingmakers in the GOP contest, often helping to decide, with a simple transfer of money, which candidate might survive another day.
Although many of these mega-donors have long participated in politics, none were able to wield the kind of influence now possible under loosened campaign finance regulations, which allow super PACs and other outside groups to spend unlimited amounts on political races.
In January, just five donors gave a total of $19 million, a quarter of the money raised for the presidential race that month, according to a Washington Post analysis of new contribution data filed this week. Overall, 23 people have directed about $54 million to super PACs this cycle, helping to bankroll a tide of negative ads in primary-contest states.
The dominance of a handful of well-to-do donors has suddenly reshaped campaign finance, but it could also pose a political risk to candidates in both parties at a time of economic distress, particularly as President Obama and his Republican rivals debate issues relating to tax fairness and income inequality ahead of the November election.
“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is funding a pro-
Gingrich super PAC, said in an interview published this week in Forbes magazine. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.”
The biggest super PAC donors represent a cross section of the nation’s elite, from financiers backing Romney — such as hedge fund kings John Paulson and Julian Robertson — to ideologically driven contributors such as Adelson, who has said he supports Gingrich because of his hawkish views on Israel.
Many of the big donors don’t confine themselves to a single gift or group, returning to their checkbooks again and again.
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel wrote four checks in December and January totaling $2.6 million to Endorse Liberty, a super PAC running ads on behalf of Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), records show. Thiel, an iconoclastic former chess master who studied philosophy at Stanford University, has long backed libertarian causes and runs a San Francisco venture-capital firm.
“Men and women who want freedom and growth should take action,” Thiel said in a recent statement. “A good place to start is voting for Ron Paul.”
Another big check writer is Foster Friess, a Wyoming investor and evangelical Christian who has emerged as an enthusiastic and — for the cloistered world of top political donors — unusually talkative supporter of former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.). Friess’s volubility caused Santorum some trouble last week, when he made an ill-advised joke on television equating birth control to an aspirin held between a woman’s knees.