"Several people were frightened away," Soros said. The attacks were "very effective. I can't quote names. Several people said they do not want to get involved because they can't afford to expose themselves the way I can, particularly people in responsible positions in publicly quoted companies."
To jump-start fundraising, Soros threw a dinner in November in Manhattan headlined by Clinton, who, according to Ickes, told donors: "If we'd had these two groups in 2000, we wouldn't be sitting here tonight. This is the ballgame."
Based on interviews and a review of past contributions, several patterns emerge among ACT's big donors. First their dislike of Bush. "What nobody certainly envisioned was that Bush would provide such a powerful catalyst at the fundraising level," Ickes said.
They back liberal causes. Some have given in the past, but others are virtual newcomers to political giving. Many have inherited money. Some, such as Lewis at Progressive Insurance and Susie Tompkins Buell, co-founder of Esprit clothing, have earned millions in the business world but have stepped down as company officials and are otherwise unconstrained by corporate boards of directors.
In some cases, the money comes from people whose relationships or personal activities might cause second thoughts by a careful politician worried about appearances or controversy. As an independent organization, ACT does not have to worry as much about accepting money from donors who espouse nontraditional causes or associate with controversial figures.
Some of the biggest donors rarely if ever grant interviews on any topic.
Bing declined numerous requests for interviews, saying through a spokesman that he is too "shy."
"He is probably the most committed Democrat I know," said director Rob Reiner, a friend of Bing. "Why has he given so much this year? Why do you think? We just have to get this president out of the White House."
Heir to a $600 million New York real estate fortune, Bing is one of the biggest Democratic donors in history, giving $9.5 million in the past 15 years mostly to party committees rather than politicians. Among Bing's causes are a California initiative that taxed cigarettes millions of dollars for education, health and child-care programs; opposing the recall of Gov. Gray Davis (D); and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Bing has been known more as a staple of tabloids than political player, whether it is getting into spectacular legal fights involving other Hollywood figures, or fathering actress Elizabeth Hurley's son. He has also attracted attention in California for his friendship with Dominick "Donnie Shacks" Montemarano, a captain in the Colombo crime family convicted of racketeering charges in 1987 and recently sentenced to prison for assault.
Unlike Bing, Pritzker, the heir to the family empire that owns Hyatt hotels, is a virtual newcomer to the political scene. A trained psychotherapist and mother of three children, she was divorced in 1999 and moved to Montana, where she founded and has funded a Buddhist organization that lists her as president and director.
This month's Forbes list of the richest Americans places Pritzker's net worth at $1.5 billion. But in the past 15 years, she has given a mere $13,000 in campaign contributions to federal political committees. This year she changed that pattern, donating $5 million to ACT, including $4.1 million through Sustainable World Corp.
In response to a request for an interview, Pritzker said in an e-mail she "was impressed with the effectiveness of ACT, in encouraging and informing citizens in the voting process. Given that this is a presidential election year I thought it important to support the health of our democracy in this way." She did not respond to follow-up questions in an e-mail.
Lewis, whose bold, risk-taking skill turned Cleveland-based Progressive Corp. into one of the nation's largest auto insurers, has become an active philanthropist and political maverick in retirement. He has declined interviews this year since he began turbocharging his political contributions, joining his political ally Soros in giving nearly $20 million to 527 groups.