Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles—When it comes to big money in politics, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons' influence has long been apparent in Texas, where he has plowed more than $1 million into Rick Perry's gubernatorial campaigns.
Now Simmons has found a new outlet for his outsize political giving — the explosion this election cycle of "super PACs," independent political organizations that can accept massive contributions to influence the presidential race and other federal elections.
Simmons and his privately held holding company, Contran Corp., dumped $8.6 million into a series of GOP-allied super PACs last year, according to campaign finance records released late Tuesday night. That propels Simmons into the top tier of a newly minted millionaires' club — super-rich individuals who are using their personal and corporate wealth to influence American politics in an unprecedented manner.
Seventeen people or companies gave at least $1 million each to super PACs last year, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times data desk. The infusion ushered in an era of Texas-style unlimited donations at the national level. The organizations have emerged as heavyweights in this year's presidential contest, at times outstripping the influence of the candidates' own campaigns.
That's the case with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose presidential bid has been kept afloat by Winning Our Future, a super PAC that has received $11 million from Las Vegas Sands Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson and his family.
The Adelsons gave the funds with no strings attached and no specific expectations, because Gingrich "is an old friend in a time of need," said one person close to the couple. It's wealthy individuals like the Adelsons who are largely powering these new organizations — not major corporations, as many critics on the left had warned. But because companies are probably giving to tax-exempt organizations that do not have to reveal their donors, it is impossible to get a full picture of their influence.
Many members of the millionaires' club have, like Adelson, long been generous political donors and fundraisers. Simmons, Houston home builder Bob Perry and Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow are among a group of wealthy Texans that helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an outside group that during the 2004 campaign attacked Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's war record. They and their companies are now backing American Crossroads, the biggest Republican super PAC, which aims to spend $240 million this cycle.
In 2010, Robert Mercer, manager of the New York hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, gave $640,000 to a super PAC that tried unsuccessfully to defeat Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, a vocal Wall Street critic. Last year, Mercer was among 10 individuals or companies writing $1-million checks to Restore Our Future, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC.
Seven-figure contributions were rarer on the Democratic side, whose super PACs have not yet matched the fundraising of their GOP counterparts. One of the few contributions that large came from DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave $2 million in May to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting President Obama.
The left relies in this cycle — as it has in the past — on the muscular role of organized labor in funding ads and turning out its members. In this election, the unions are also filling the coffers of new super PACs. The Service Employees International Union, which represents 2 million workers, gave nearly $1.6 million to Democratic-leaning super PACs in 2011. All told, SEIU is expected to spend about $85 million on political activity, equal to the record amount the union dedicated to the 2008 presidential election.
Super PACs sprang up as a result of a series of court decisions in 2010, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political activity. That decision has been heatedly decried by campaign finance reform advocates and many Democrats, including Obama, who has warned it will lead to a flood of unregulated corporate cash in politics.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much corporate money is in the system, since many of the outside groups are organized as nonprofits, allowing them to keep their donors secret. While American Crossroads, co-founded by GOP political strategist Karl Rove, reported the donors that gave it $18.4 million last year, its nonprofit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, raised an additional $32.6 million from undisclosed contributors.
The latest campaign finance records reveal that dozens of private companies, hedge funds and business partnerships contributed to super PACs last year. But in an initial review of the filings, Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, appears to be the only publicly traded company that gave money, making a $250,000 donation to a super PAC backing Rick Perry's since-suspended presidential bid.
Chesapeake did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The paucity of well-known corporate names among the disclosures doesn't mean that leading businesses won't be involved in electoral politics this presidential cycle, according to top corporate lobbyists in Washington.
Major companies are expected to fuel record political activity at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plans to spend at least $50 million on congressional races this year. The chamber, which does not disclose its donors, disputed the amount.
Although many of the nation's leading CEOs are eager to participate in this year's election, they largely plan to steer clear of super PACs because of the disclosure requirements.
"I think the Target experience makes them gun-shy," said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, referring to a national boycott against the retail chain in 2010 after it donated to a political group backing a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who had made negative statements about gay and lesbian rights.
Simmons, a buyout investor who controls a stable of companies that produce metals and chemicals, has never been hesitant about using his fortune to promote his brand of conservative politics. He gave $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 and helped finance a nonprofit group in 2008 that spent $2.9 million on ads attacking Obama's ties to William Ayers, a former member of the 1960s-era Weather Underground.
Simmons has poured $1.1 million into Perry's campaigns, making him the second-largest individual donor to the Texas governor. Under Perry's administration, one of Simmons' companies, Waste Control Specialists, received permission to build the first new low-level radioactive waste disposal site in the country in three decades in an isolated patch of West Texas, despite objections from some state environmental agency staffers.
Simmons now has even more wealth at his disposal: In the last year, his net worth ballooned to roughly $9.6 billion, largely because the stock of Valhi, a chemicals conglomerate he controls, rose 170%, Forbes reported in December.
In the last year, he gave $1.1 million to two super PACs backing Perry's presidential bid, along with $500,000 to Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC. In the fall, he donated $5 million to American Crossroads, while Contran gave $2 million.
"Mr. Simmons is a passionate conservative, and he has been for quite some time," said his spokesman, Chuck McDonald, who described Simmons as "pro-business" and a supporter of tort reform.
But Simmons is not pursuing a specific policy agenda with his donations, McDonald said.
"I know people want to think he is," he said. "He is a man who has a lot of personal wealth and believes in conservative ideology, and that's where he puts his money."
Staff writers Gold and Hamburger reported from Washington and researcher Moore from Los Angeles. Melanie Mason in Washington and Sandra Poindexter and Doug Smith in Los Angeles contributed to this report.