Reporting from Washington—Billionaire political patrons filled the coffers of the presidential "super PACs" last month, spotlighting once again the enormous influence a tiny cadre of wealthy donors is having on the 2012 race.
The biggest donations came from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family, who pumped an additional $5.5 million into the pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future in February — 95% of the money the group raised, according to documents filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission.
Adelson's massive contributions were rivaled by those of conservative Dallas investor Harold Simmons, who with his wife, Annette, and company, Contran Corp., has given a total of $15.4 million to a variety of GOP super PACs. In February, Annette Simmons gave $1 million to Red White and Blue Fund, a super PAC backing Rick Santorum. Her donation exceeded that of Santorum's most public backer, Wyoming mutual fund executive Foster Friess, who kicked in $600,000 in February. (Friess remains the group's largest overall donor, contributing $1.27 million through this election cycle.)
Meanwhile, Harold Simmons personally shelled out $100,000 to both Winning Our Future and Restore Our Future, a group backing Mitt Romney.
Simmons' donation was modest compared with the $3 million that Restore Our Future received from Texas home builder Bob Perry, a longtime GOP backer who helped finance the Swift Boat veterans group that attacked then-Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004. Perry had already donated $3.6 million to Republican super PACs this cycle.
In all, Restore Our Future raised $6.4 million in February from 100 donors. Among the contributors to the group were a cluster of payday lenders, a segment of the financial industry worried about new oversight it will face from the Obama administration.
Seven payday loan companies donated a total of $162,500 to the super PAC in February. All the donations were recorded in the first week of the month, in increments ranging from $2,500 to $35,000.
Restore Our Future declined to comment.
Joe Kilsheimer, a spokesman for one of the lenders, Florida-based Amscot Corp., said his company backs Republicans and Democrats.
"We happen to be in a business that's very heavily regulated, so we give political contributions to both Republicans and Democrats so that we can be engaged in that discussion about the regulation of our industry," he said.
All but one of the companies made the donations under their own names. But Seattle-based Moneytree gave through a separate entity, Katsam LLC (misspelled as Katsum in the filing). Katsam is registered in Washington state to Dennis and David Bassford, Moneytree's co-founders. The FEC filing lists an address for Katsam that is the same as that of Moneytree.
Moneytree did not respond to a request for comment.
Payday lenders have come under scrutiny for offering short-term loans at triple-digit annual interest rates, sometimes at the financial peril of their customers, according to watchdog groups.
Richard Cordray, the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in January that the agency would step up its oversight of the industry.
The consumer bureau was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, which Romney has promised to repeal if elected.
"These payday lenders are the real vulture capitalists in communities around the country, and now they're investing in a candidate they believe will get rid of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform advocacy group.
Romney himself raised $11.5 million and spent $12.4 million in February, dramatically slowing his burn rate from January, when his campaign spent three times more than it raised. Heading into March, he had $7.3 million in the bank.
Santorum got $8.9 million in contributions and spent $7.8 million, ending the month with $2.6 million on hand, along with $922,000 in debt. Texas Rep. Ron Paul brought in $3.3 million, spent $3.5 million and ended the month with $1.4 million. Gingrich raised just $2.6 million in February and spent $2.8 million, leaving him with $1.54 million in cash and $1.55 million in debt.
President Obama raised $23.1 million for his reelection in February, out of a total monthly haul of $45 million that his campaign, the Democratic National Committee and two fundraising committees brought in. His campaign spent $15.9 million and ended the month with nearly $85 million in the bank.
In all, Obama has raised $163.2 million for his reelection campaign. At this point in the 2008 race — when Obama was still fighting to win the Democratic nomination — his campaign had pulled in $193.7 million.
Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting his reelection, has had less fundraising success. Despite the fact that Obama gave donors the green light last month to donate to the group, it raised just over $2 million in February. A $1-million check from comedian Bill Maher accounted for nearly half. The vast majority of its donors gave between $250 and $1,000 — small potatoes in super PAC terms.