WASHINGTON — A quarter of the money that has fuelled a bitter nomination battle among Republican White House hopefuls, from which no settled favorite has yet emerged, has come from just five super-rich Americans.
The sway that wealthy donors have been able to exert has come about due to them pouring money into so-called super PACs, political action committees with no formal affiliation to a candidate but, more crucially, no funding cap.
Analysts say the committees’ ability to fund attack ads and other campaign efforts, along with a long and fractured list of Republican contenders, has prolonged the selection of Democratic President Barack Obama’s opponent.
Texas industrialist Harold Simmons and Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson have given the most money so far, donating $14.2 million and $10 million respectively, though they have adopted markedly different strategies.
Simmons, a billionaire corporate raider with a long history of political contributions, spread his money around the Republican field, but his central aim is to ensure that Obama loses on November 6.
Simmons has given $12 million to “American Crossroads,” a super PAC that seeks a US president “dedicated to rescuing our economy from the Obama agenda,” according to the welcome message of its chief executive, Steven Law.
Simmons has also made a series of donations to political action committees backing Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and had earlier given $1.1 million to Texas governor Rick Perry, who has suspended his campaign.
Adelson, 78, however, has confined his cash to Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, with two $5 million donations made by him and his wife to “Winning Our Future,” a Gingrich-aligned super PAC. A further $1 million contribution came from Adelson’s daughters.
“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to, or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it,” Adelson, whose estimated net worth is $25 billion, told Forbes magazine in a profile published Wednesday, noting that he might give up to $100 million to Gingrich or another Republican.
With Rick Santorum now seen as the main challenger to Romney, attention has also swung to Foster Friess, a Wyoming investor who wrote a $415,600 check to a super PAC aligned with the former Pennsylvania senator after he beat Romney in the January 3 Iowa caucuses that kicked off the Republican race.
Santorum’s fortunes plunged after that victory and he was soon polling at the bottom of the Republican field, but the Christian conservative’s trio of wins this month in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado revived his fortunes.
The turnaround was at least partly attributable to super PAC money, according to Norm Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
“It’s keeping candidates in the race much longer than they would otherwise,” he said. “If you start to falter early what usually happens in these contests is you get starved and you can’t go on.
“A couple of millionaires have kept Santorum and Gingrich in the race.”
Around $126 million has so far been donated to super PACS, with nearly 25 percent of that money coming from Simmons, Adelson, Friess, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, and Houston construction magnate Bob Perry.
Thiel has helped the campaign of veteran Texas congressman Ron Paul, donating $2.6 million to “Endorse Liberty,” an affiliated super PAC.
Perry, meanwhile, has given $3.6 million to various super PACs, including $2.5 million to American Crossroads.
Anthony Corrado, an expert in campaign finance and professor of government at Colby College, said the super PACS had prolonged the nomination process.
“The Republican race should be over by now,” he said, “but these wealthy donors have basically provided the funding for the advertising campaign that helped Gingrich win South Carolina, and that have kept Santorum in the race.”
A secondary effect, however, has been an intensely divisive campaign.
“About 72 percent of all the advertising that’s been done by these groups has attacked one or the other candidates,” said Corrado. “So they are largely responsible for the negative tone.”