Plutocrat Politics: How Financial Sector Wealth Fuels Political Ad Spending

100 Individual Megadonors Gave Nearly $690 Million to Outside Political Spending Groups During the 2017-2018 Election Cycle

By Alan Zibel

Plutocrat Politics

Hedge fund managers, bankers and other financial bigwigs wielded massive influence on the 2018 midterms by supplying more than half of all donations to outside political groups set up expressly to influence elections, a Public Citizen analysis has found.

Public Citizen analyzed contributions by the 100 individuals who contributed the most to outside political organizations that reported their donors during the 2017-2018 election cycle, including super PACs and other nonprofits that advocate for or against candidates.

These groups, which are not formally connected to candidates’ campaigns, can accept unlimited donations from individuals, nonprofits and corporations. They have dramatically increased their election spending in recent years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which kicked off an unprecedented era of big-money influence in American politics.

The analysis found that political donors whose wealth comes from the financial sector, including several prominent hedge fund billionaires, were the largest reported funders of outside political groups. The top 100 individual donors gave a total of nearly $690 million to outside spending groups, with $359 million, or 52 percent, benefiting Democrats and $312 million, or 45 percent, benefiting Republicans. About $19 million, or 3 percent, benefited outside election groups that did not favor one party over another.

By far the largest source of reported funding for outside election spending efforts was the financial industry. About $344 million, or nearly half of the top 100 individuals’ donations, came from 36 donors with fortunes earned in private equity, hedge funds, investments and banking. Outside the financial industry, gambling, technology, inheritance and industrial supply companies were the most significant sources of wealth for the top 100 individual funders of outside spending efforts.

Out of the top 100 individual political donors to outside spending groups, 74 were men, 18 were women and eight were couples.  In addition, 97 out of the 100 largest individual donors to outside spending groups were white. This finding is consistent with research showing that whites make up more than 90 percent donors who give more than $5,000 to congressional campaigns.

During the 2017-2018 election cycle, spending by outside groups surged to more than $1 billion, the highest-ever for a midterm election, second only to the $1.4 billion spent during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  Outside spending favoring Democrats exceeded outside spending favoring Republicans in last year’s elections for the first time in the post-Citizens United era.

The Public Citizen analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics highlights how the influence of outside spending groups funded by mega-donors has surged over the past decade. The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporations and wealthy individuals to spend money to directly influence elections, as long as such spending is deemed independent of political candidates and parties.  Months after the Citizens United decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit allowed unlimited contributions to outside groups, paving the way  for super PACs to become a major force in American politics.

Individual donors are the primary funders of super PACs, which are required to disclose their donors, unlike “dark money” nonprofits, which are not. Individuals provided more than 70 percent of super PAC funding in the 2018 election cycle.  Trade associations and corporate donors have tended to fund dark money groups that do not disclose their donors and whose activities are much harder to trace.

Public Citizen’s analysis of the top 100 individual contributors to outside spending groups during the 2017-2018 election cycle also found that:

  • Pro-Democrat outside spending efforts were highly dependent on financial industry wealth. The financial industry represented 74 percent of funding for pro-Democrat outside spending efforts, followed by inherited wealth (8 percent), technology (6 percent) media (5.5 percent) and real estate (3 percent).
  • The sources of funding for pro-Republican outside spending efforts reflected far more industries, including gambling (41 percent), finance (25 percent), industrial supply and distribution (13 percent) , energy (6 percent) and technology (2.6 percent).
  • Individual political donors from just four states – New York, California, Nevada and Illinois – made up nearly 78 percent of the top 100 individuals’ donations to outside spending groups. Groups supporting Democrats were highly reliant on donors from New York, California, Illinois and Massachusetts, while Republican-leaning groups tapped donors in Nevada, Illinois, New York and Texas.

The Public Citizen analysis found that the financial industry’s biggest individual donors to outside spending groups tended to support Democrats. Major donors to groups that backed Democrats included Michael Bloomberg, founder of financial data firm Bloomberg LP, who donated more than $90 million, and Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund founder and climate activist, who donated nearly $70 million.  Other major financial industry donors of groups backing Democrats include the hedge fund founders Donald Sussman and James Simons.

While four out of the five largest financial industry donors to outside spending groups supported Democrats,  the 20 largest financial industry individual donors were evenly split between supporters of Democrats and Republicans. Prominent Republican outside spenders included prominent hedge fund, private equity, trading and investment executives including Kenneth Griffin, Steven Schwarzman, Jeffrey Yass, Charles Schwab and Paul Singer.

This high concentration of Democratic and Republican donors from the finance industry, and particularly from founders of hedge funds, private equity firms and of high-speed trading firms, may hinder efforts to enact important reforms. For example, Public Citizen has long called for a Wall Street sales tax on financial transactions like stock, bond, and derivative trades, much as individuals pay a sales tax on our everyday purchases. Such a tax would be so small that ordinary investors would hardly notice it but would raise substantial revenue, largely from high- volume traders. Yet this sort of sensible policy change is far less likely if wealthy traders are the biggest political benefactors.

Illustrating how difficult challenging the financial industry can be, President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to eliminate the “carried interest”  tax loophole that benefits private equity executives and hedge fund managers, even saying in 2015 that “the hedge fund guys are getting away with murder.” But despite Trump’s criticism, administration officials sent mixed messages on the issue, and the loophole was not closed during tax legislation signed by Trump in 2017.

Outside the financial industry, Public Citizen’s analysis found that megadonors from the gambling industry supported Republicans exclusively, including Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., who donated more than $122 million to conservative political spending groups. Adelson was followed by casino executive Cherna Moskowitz, who donated about $2 million, and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, Las Vegas casino billionaires who each donated $1.5 million.

The second-largest donor to groups that supported GOP candidates was Richard Uihlein, founder of packaging and supply company Uline Inc,, who donated nearly $38 million. Other major backers of groups supporting Republican candidates included Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, who donated $6.5 million, and Arkansas poultry magnate Ronnie Cameron and his wife Nina, who donated nearly $5.7 million.

To end the massive influx of corporate and special interest money into our elections, Public Citizen has long championed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and supports public financing of campaigns. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, a sweeping set of important democracy reforms. This bill, the For the People Act, takes a three-pronged approach to reforming our democratic process:

  • Voting Rights and Election Security: The For the People Act implements automatic voter registration across the country; ensures that individuals who have completed felony sentences have their full rights restored; expands early voting and simplifies absentee voting; modernizes the U.S. voting system; prohibits voter roll purges and ends partisan gerrymandering to prevent politicians from picking their voters.
    Campaign Finance Reform: The For the People Act upgrades online political ad disclosure; creates a publicly funded matching system for small-dollar donations; tightens rules on super PACs and restructures the Federal Election Commission to break the agency’s gridlock.
    Congressional and Executive Ethics: The For the People Act breaks the influence economy in Washington, D.C., by expanding conflict of interest law and divestment requirements; slows the revolving door; and requires presidents to disclose their tax returns.


RSVP to Public Citizen's Gala

The event will feature a keynote address from U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and remarks from Desmond Meade — who led the campaign that restored voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians.