Familiar faces funding conservative attack ads

By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Swift Boaters are back.

Funders of the stealth campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry have returned in force six years later, giving millions of dollars to independent groups targeting Democrats in the November midterm elections, according to disclosure records.

The donations are part of a broader pattern of giving this year dominated by longtime party fundraisers, Wall Street financiers and oil tycoons, according to a Washington Post analysis. Records show that much of the money fueling a wave of negative attack advertising comes from a stable of old political hands with roots stretching as far back as the Nixon era.

The surge in monied donors comes amid a significant drop in contributions among the broader electorate, despite the burst of political energy surrounding the tea party movement. In 2008, more than 1.3 million Americans gave $200 or more to a political campaign; this year, that number has been cut in half.

"The reality is that American elections are financed by a very small number of people," said David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch, which favors public financing for elections. "There aren't that many people who can play at that level or who can engage at that level, which means they have an inordinate amount of power."

American Crossroads, one of this year's biggest Republican-friendly spenders, has received 42 percent of its money from a dozen supporters of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that accused Sen. Kerry of lying about his war record in 2004 and then largely faded from sight.

The single biggest contributor to American Crossroads, with $7 million, is Bob J. Perry, a Texas home builder who was the top Swift Boat financier. Perry and other Swift Boaters have also given millions to other prominent conservative groups, including the Republican Governors Association, the First Amendment Alliance and the New Prosperity Foundation, records show.

On the left, a "super PAC" called America's Families First has reported contributions of $25,000 or more from wealthy Democratic donors who include party fundraiser Fred Eyechaner, Barack Obama bundler Orin Kramer and Silicon Valley banker Sanford Robertson, records show. Others Democratic-friendly groups, such as the Patriot Majority PAC, rely heavily on large union transfers for their funding.

But the pattern of outsized giving is far more noticeable this year among independent conservative groups, which have drawn on a deep bench of Republican rainmakers while many of their liberal rivals sit this election out. Past GOP power brokers who are spending big again include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens; media mogul Philip Anschutz; and George W. Bush bundler Robert Rowling, records show.

These and other donors, who are revealed in disclosure documents filed with the Federal Election Commission or Internal Revenue Service, are only part of the fundraising picture. Much of the outside funding this year is going to groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which are not required to publicly disclose most of their contributions.

Many of the largest independent groups are run or supported by a who's who of Republican operatives, from former Bush aides Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie - who helped launch American Crossroads - to Fred Malek, whose Washington political career stretches back to the Nixon administration. Malek is chairman of the American Action Network, which has spent more than $7 million on House and Senate races, and has served as an adviser to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R).

Even Dick Morris has gotten into the act. The Clinton-aide-turned-conservative-pundit has launched the aptly named Super PAC of America with the goal of raising $20 million. The group announced a $600,000 ad buy against Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) this week.

The tilt of outside giving is notably different than many previous election cycles, including 2004 and 2006, when unaffiliated liberal groups matched or exceeded their Republican-friendly opponents. This year, some major Democratic players, such as the financier George Soros, have largely held back from funding election-related activities.

On the conservative side, well-connected groups with big donors have largely eclipsed the efforts of tea party-affiliated groups such as the Tea Party Express, which has spent only $2 million on election activities this year, much it during the primary season, FEC records show.

"We have not seen any big-money people emerge in those groups," said Keith Appell of CRC Public Relations, which helped orchestrate the Swift Boat campaign in 2004 and now works with tea party groups. "It's more organic than people give it credit for."

Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant, said the lack of "new money" in this year's elections isn't surprising. "Outside groups usually start with big donors to get them off the ground, and then new donors usually follow once they are well established," he said.

American Crossroads has received at least $10 million from Swift Boat group veterans, including Perry; $2 million from investor Harold C. Simmons; and $400,000 from a company run by Ohio billionaire Carl Lindner, according to FEC filings. Overall, $21.5 million of the $24 million reported by the group has come from donors giving $100,000 or more, the data show.

B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage Inc., gave $2.3 million to American Crossroads and sits on the board of the American Action Network, a group spearheaded by former GOP senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Hughes is a longtime GOP donor who contributed to Progress for America, which worked on behalf of Bush and other Republicans in 2004 and 2006.

Spokesman Jonathan Collegio said American Crossroads and its sister group, Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose donors, have taken in numerous unsolicited contributions from Midwestern businessmen and others giving $10,000 or less to the cause.

"A lot of folks are trying to make the case that the big money is artificially driving the intensity, but that gets it precisely backward," Collegio said. "The intensity of the grass-roots movement, starting with the tea parties, is what is driving the bigger contributors."

Perry, the owner of Houston-based Perry Homes, is garnering the most attention because of his leading role in giving $4.45 million to the Swift Boat group in 2004. The 77-year-old custom home builder has given at least $30 million to independent conservative groups and candidates over the past decade, including at least $14 million in the 2010 cycle, records show.

Perry, who generally avoids the public spotlight, declined to comment. "The donations speak for themselves," said Anthony Holm, a Perry spokesman.

eggend@washpost.com farnamt@washpost.com

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