The GOP's Million-Dollar Men
For years, Harold Simmons was the kind of donor who dipped into his personal fortune and maxed out his donations to Republican Party candidates and committees.
But in a year in which there's no such thing as maxing out, Simmons has gone one better: he pulled out his corporate checkbook and cut a pair of $1 million checks.
The checks - one each from two of his companies - went to American Crossroads, the organization founded with the help of former Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.
Simmons isn't the GOP's only big-ticket corporate underwriter. California businessman Jerry Perenchio also contributed $1 million to American Crossroads, from a living trust. He served as a co-chairman of the finance committee for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
And Carl Lindner, a prodigious GOP fundraiser and one-time Bush Pioneer, also tapped his company's bank account to contribute $400,000 to American Crossroads.
When the Supreme Court this year decided corporations should be just as protected as individuals when it came to political speech, the justices gave the firms owned by men like Perenchio, Lindner and Simmons a very loud voice.
Democrats had warned that wealthy Republican CEOs would grab their company checkbooks and swamp the political landscape.
Turns out, they were pretty much right.
POLITICO found nearly 20 business donations during a review of Federal Election Commission disclosure reports, those filed by more traditional political action committees that must reveal their donors and have announced that this year that they will take oversized corporate cash.
The profile of the 2010 corporate donor that can be gleaned from these public donations suggests that the vast majority of them represent long-time Democratic adversaries and former Bush loyalists.
Their reach is significant, as is the speed in which they can change the subject of a political debate. For perspective, a candidate would have to collect 1,251 maximum donations of $2,400 from individual backers to match that $3 million kitty provided by the firms owned by just Perenchio and Simmons.
In addition to veteran players, the records show that there are a few corporate newcomers to the political game who have a particular mission, and a smaller pool of givers representing publicly held firms, at least one of which has paid a price for its political debut.
To be sure, the FEC-recorded donations represent the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of corporate giving is believed to be going to new groups that organized as charities or educational institutions with the Internal Revenue Service so they would not have to disclose their donors.
On Wednesday, one of those groups, American Crossroads, announced that its two divisions - one that is registered with the FEC for political activity and its unregistered American Crossroads GPS arm - had raised more than $13 million in the week after President Barack Obama accused the secretive groups of trying to steal elections with hidden cash.
Those types of windfalls prompted Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to call on the IRS to investigate the groups. But Marc Owens, a former IRS attorney now in private practice, is skeptical that such a review will ever take place.
"All the money that is flowing into [those groups] this calendar year is going to essentially remain hidden from everybody until potentially late next year - and that includes the IRS," said Owens.
"There is no systematic way to determine who is giving the money. There is no repository for that data," he added. "It could be foreign nationals. It could be domestic donors. It could be anybody."
Among the donations that have found their way into the public files at the FEC, it's clear that not all of the checks are of the seven-figure variety. But even the bulk of the midsize corporate players have a red tinge to them.
Stephen Brauer, owner of Hunter Engineering Co., an automobile service franchise in Missouri, is a former Bush Pioneer who also gave to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that attacked the war record of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
This cycle, Brauer wrote a check for $50,000 from his company's account to the New Prosperity Foundation, a new group based in Chicago that is running ads against Midwest Democrats.
Daniels Manufacturing Corp., an aircraft and aerospace firm, gave $15,000 to the Rove-Gillespie group. The Orlando firm is owned by George Daniels, who served on a small business steering committee for the Bush administration.
While Republicans are dominating the rush the collect corporate cash, some Democratic-leaning firms are also getting into the act, albeit in much smaller ways so far.
In Florida, Sterling Aviation, a Miami-based firm, gave $25,000 to a new group called Florida Is Not For Sale, which ran advertisements opposing the Senate primary bid by billionaire Democrat Jeff Greene.
The firm is owned by Stephen Bittel, a commercial real estate mogul. Sterling Aviation's donation was matched by $25,000 in personal donations from Stuart A. Miller, owner of the home construction firm Lennar Corp., and Jeffrey S. Miller, who owns one of Florida's largest liquefied petroleum gas suppliers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
All three men are well-known Democratic donors in Florida and they'd all given maximum donations to Greene's primary rival, Rep. Kendrick Meek, before they formed Florida Is Not for Sale and launched a $250,000 ad campaign against Greene. Meek won the nomination but now trails badly in the three-way race for the Senate seat.
But it's the eye-popping checks that are getting the attention, and will continue to do so as more disclosure reports roll through the FEC in these final weeks.
Simmons tapped his two companies, the Southwest Louisiana Land Corp. and Dixie Rice Agricultural Corp., to kick $1 million each to American Crossroads.
In the past, the Dallas billionaire also had donated large sums to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and bankrolled the American Issues Project, an independent group that ran commercials trying to tie President Obama with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground organization that claimed responsibility for a dozen bombings in the 1970s.
While those two checks represent Simmons' biggest donations this cycle, he has also given personal checks to a host of Republican candidates and party committees, bringing his total donations thus far to more than $2.7 million.
The Lindner-owner American Financial Group, a Cincinnati-based firm, also gave $400,000 to American Crossroads.
Linder was a Bush bundler, a fundraiser who tapped friends and family to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the campaign. He also gave to the Swift Boat campaign to undermine Kerry's military record.
In all, Linder and his company have donated nearly $1 million this cycle to candidates and party committees. But his corporate gift to American Crossroads is by far his largest.
A common bond among most of the corporate donors listed at the FEC is that they are privately owned firms or companies dominated by one personality, which provides some insulation from investor revolts or a customer backlash.
However, this year has featured the entry of a few publicly traded firms with national reputations, and their experience has proved a cautionary tale for both sides in the current debate and could be a major reason many business donors are going underground.
The testing ground is in Minneapolis, Minn., where a new business group, MN Forward, is using corporate donations to promote business-friendly candidates.
The group has endorsed a bipartisan mix of lawmakers in state races. But early in its formation - before it had finalized its full endorsement slate - it made clear that it was going to back Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer rather than Democratic nominee Mark Dayton.
Target was among MN Forward's first corporate backers and it was its biggest, tapping the company treasury for $150,000. Once the donation because public, Target was instantly engulfed in a firestorm of protests from liberals and gay activists who object to Emmer's conservative social positions.
Target officials tried to tamp down on the outcry by emphasizing that it supported Emmer's position on taxes and regulations and never intended to embrace or endorse his stand on abortion or gay rights. But the incident left the firm with a black eye and smoldering resentment among certain portions of its customer base.
Nervously watching from the sidelines was Best Buy, another national brand that had given $100,000 to MN Forward. The activists who went after Target, most notably the Human Rights Campaign and MoveOn, had vowed to turn their attention to Best Buy when they were finished with Target.
But the incident ended in largely a stalemate.
MoveOn, which vowed to match the Target MN Forward donation with ads supporting Kirk, "pivoted to the broader ad push-back program knowing that we could not fight this corporation by corporation," said Ilyse Hogue, the group's political director.
In the meantime, MN Forward has gone on to gather more money from other national brands, including $100,000 from office supply giant 3M, $50,000 from children's products maker Graco, and $100,000 from global beauty salon operator Regis Corp.