Double-Duty Donors, Part II: Large Numbers of Wealthy Donors Hit Legal Limit on Giving to Candidates, Turn to Presidential Super PACs in Continuing Trend


Super PACs supporting presidential candidates continue to take in six- and seven-figure contributions from individuals who also have given the legal maximum to the candidate's campaign committee.

During 2011, the super PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney pulled in contributions from 172 individuals who also gave the legal maximum to Romney's campaign -- 84 percent of Restore Our Future's 205 donors.

The double-givers included five individuals who gave $1 million to the super PAC: hedge fund titans Paul Singer, John Paulson and Julian Robertson, homebuilder Bob Perry and former Bain executive Edward Conard, according to a new analysis by the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21 and the Center for Responsive Politics.

On the other side of the aisle, the figures were less dramatic: 15 of the 55 individuals who donated to Priorities USA, the pro-Barack Obama super PAC formed by two of his former aides, maxed out to Obama’s campaign committee. Those 15 include Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks Studios, who gave $2 million to Priorities USA.  The number of people giving to both committees could increase now that Obama has given his blessing to the super PAC's efforts, reversing his earlier stance.

Individuals are permitted to give $2,500 to a candidate for the primary season, and another $2,500 for the general election. For the purpose of this report, a donor is considered to have given the legal maximum if he or she has donated at least $2,500 to a presidential hopeful.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, followed by an appellate court decision in the case SpeechNow v. FEC, led to the formation of super PACs, which are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from practically any source – individual, corporate or union. They can spend the money on ads and other activities that support or oppose candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate their expenditures with a candidate’s campaign or give the money directly to someone running for office.

“Recent announcements by the Obama and Romney campaigns that high-level campaign staff will be appearing at super PAC fundraising events make clear that these super PACs are simply shadow candidate committees set up to evade the $2,500 candidate contribution limit,” said Paul S. Ryan, FEC Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center. “Million-dollar contributions to the super PACs pose just as big a threat of corruption as would million-dollar contributions directly to candidates.”

"For most of these donors, $2,500 seems to be an almost insignificant amount compared to what they're contributing to the super PACs associated with the candidates," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "Giving to the candidate is almost a perfunctory act on the way to giving a really substantial amount to a super PAC" that then will spend the money to help the candidate.

“Presidential candidate-specific super PACs are simply vehicles for circumventing the candidate contribution limits which were enacted to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions,” according to Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “The findings of this study, showing that 84 percent of itemized donors to the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC also gave the maximum legal contribution to the Romney presidential campaign, bear that out," Wertheimer said.

Americans for Rick Perry received donations from 11 individuals who had also given the legal maximum to the Texas governor, out of 22 contributors to the super PAC. However, 32 of the 42 contributors to the larger super PAC that was in Perry's corner, Make Us Great Again, came from the universe of donors who had maxed out to Perry in 2011. Perry dropped out of the race in January.

And five of the 18 individual donors to Winning Our Future, the largest super PAC that is backing Newt Gingrich, had topped out their giving to Gingrich for the primary season, including two who gave the maximum to the former House speaker for the general election as well as the primaries. These numbers don't include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who reportedly gave $10 million to the pro-Gingrich super PAC in January so were not captured in the year-end report. Adelson and his wife maxed out to Gingrich's primary campaign last August.

Nine of Red, White & Blue PAC's 14 individual donors last year maxed out to the campaign committee of the group's favored candidate, Rick Santorum. Endorse Liberty, the super PAC supporting Ron Paul, received just one contribution from someone who had hit the limit on donations to the Paul campaign. Of course, the group had only four individual donors. For another super PAC backing the Texas congressman, Santa Rita Super PAC, the figure was four out of seven.

To read the full analysis, click here.