Fewer than 60 donors account for one-third of 2016 campaign money raised

Julie Bykowicz and Jack Gillu, AP writers

It took Ted Cruz three months to raise $10 million for his campaign for president, a springtime sprint of $1,000-per-plate dinners, hundreds of handshakes and a stream of emails asking supporters to chip in a few bucks.

One check, from one donor, topped those results.

New York hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer’s $11 million gift to a group backing the Texas Republican’s White House bid put him atop a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires whose contributions already dwarf those made by the tens of thousands of people who have given to their favorite presidential candidate.

An Associated Press analysis of fundraising reports filed with federal regulators through July 31 found that nearly 60 donations of a million dollars or more accounted for about a third of the more than $380 million brought in so far for the 2016 presidential election. Donors who gave at least $100,000 account for about half of all donations so far to candidates’ presidential committees and the super PACs that support them.

The review covered contributions to outside groups that can accept checks of any size, known as super PACs, and to the formal campaigns, which are limited to accepting no more than $2,700 per donor. The tally includes donations from individuals, corporations and other organizations reflected in data filed with the Federal Election Commission as of July 31, the deadline for super PACs to report for the first six months of the year.

That concentration of money from a small group of wealthy donors builds on a trend that began in 2012, the first presidential contest after a series of court rulings and regulatory steps that created the super PAC. They can openly support candidates but may not directly coordinate their actions with their campaigns.

“We have never seen an election like this, in which the wealthiest people in America are dominating the financing of the presidential election and as a consequence are creating enormous debts and obligations from the candidates who are receiving this financial support,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based group that wants to limit money in politics.

Others see an upside to the rainmakers.

“Big money gives us more competitive elections by helping many more candidates spread their message,” said David Keating, director of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for fewer campaign finance limits.

For any number of reasons, these donors are willing to give so generously. Some may have a business that stands to gain from an executive branch that changes how an industry is regulated, while others hope for plum administration assignments, such as a diplomatic post overseas or a cabinet position.

Many say their contributions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as equivalent to free speech, merely reflect their intense belief in a particular candidate — and in the political system in general.

“I’d think that the fact that I’m willing to spend money in the public square rather than buying myself a toy would be considered a good thing,” said Scott Banister, a Silicon Valley investor who gave $1.2 million to a super PAC helping Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the Republican presidential race.

“The voters still, at the end of the day, make the decision,” he said. “You can spend $1 billion trying to tell the voters to vote for a set of ideas they don’t like, and they will still vote against the candidate.”

For Florida developer Al Hoffman, financial support of the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush, is personal. A longtime friend and political contributor to the Bush family, he gave $1 million to Bush’s super PAC, contributing to its record-setting haul of $103 million in the first six months of the year.

Others see an upside to the rainmakers.

“Big money gives us more competitive elections by helping many more candidates spread their message,” said David Keating, director of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for fewer campaign finance limits.

For any number of reasons, these donors are willing to give so generously. Some may have a business that stands to gain from an executive branch that changes how an industry is regulated, while others hope for plum administration assignments, such as a diplomatic post overseas or a cabinet position.

Many say their contributions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as equivalent to free speech, merely reflect their intense belief in a particular candidate — and in the political system in general.

“I’d think that the fact that I’m willing to spend money in the public square rather than buying myself a toy would be considered a good thing,” said Scott Banister, a Silicon Valley investor who gave $1.2 million to a super PAC helping Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the Republican presidential race.

“The voters still, at the end of the day, make the decision,” he said. “You can spend $1 billion trying to tell the voters to vote for a set of ideas they don’t like, and they will still vote against the candidate.”

For Florida developer Al Hoffman, financial support of the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush, is personal. A longtime friend and political contributor to the Bush family, he gave $1 million to Bush’s super PAC, contributing to its record-setting haul of $103 million in the first six months of the year.

Such totals put them well ahead of Paul, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum — who all began their presidential campaigns in the spring.

Cruz’s super PACs, meanwhile, didn’t just get the $11 million from Mercer. They also received a $10 million donation from Toby Neugebauer, an energy investor in Texas, while the Texas-based Wilks family pooled together a $15 million gift.

Super PACs will spend as campaigns do, investing in polling and data sets, hiring employees in key states and buying pricey television and digital advertising, direct mailings and phone calls to voters. Their money will be important in early primary states, but also would allow those with deep-pocket backers to campaign beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

“There are a handful of billionaires that are making viable individuals whose campaigns never would have gotten off the ground,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which wants to tighten limits on money in politics. “Some of these candidates will go much deeper into the primaries than they otherwise could, thanks only to this kind of money.