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Can Pro-Obama Super PAC Match GOP Groups’ Financial Might?

February 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
January financial disclosures exposed the power of unaffiliated super PACs funds this election season. Margaret Warner and John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News discuss the fundraising reports, the $22 million raised and some of the big spenders helping these groups help their preferred candidates.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the financial strength of the presidential campaigns.

The candidates and the groups backing them filed their January reports with the Federal Election Commission at midnight yesterday. These are the first numbers we have seen since voters started going to the polls in early presidential primaries.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: If there was any doubt about the heft of the unaffiliated super PAC funds in this year’s campaign, the January reports laid that to rest. The four Republican candidates raised $21 million combined. The super PACs supporting them raised $22 million.

NARRATOR: Rick Santorum is called the ultimate Washington insider.

MARGARET WARNER: Most of the super PAC money went for campaign ads like these, many attacking rivals to the super PACs’ favored candidate. The difference in firepower was most striking for Newt Gingrich. He raised $5.5 million, the Winning Our Future super PAC more than $11 million.

The disparity was less in Mitt Romney’s case. He pulled in $6.5 million, the Restore Our Future super PAC supporting him $6.6 million. Rick Santorum, now surging in the polls, collected just over $4.5 million on his own. The Red White and Blue Fund a little less than half that. Likewise, Ron Paul raised just under $4.5 million, the pro-Paul super PAC about half that.

What’s more, at month’s end, the pro-Romney and pro-Gingrich super PACs were left with more cash on hand to spend than their favored candidates. Gingrich’s big bankroller, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, told “Forbes” magazine: “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich.  I gave the money because there is no other legal way to do it. I don’t want to go through 10 different corporations to hide my name. I’m proud of what I do.”

On “FOX News Sunday,” Gingrich offered this assessment of Adelson’s role.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Well, he’s certainly helping balance off Romney’s 16 billionaires. And he’s helping balance off Romney’s Wall Street money.

But the reason’s very straightforward. Sheldon Adelson is desperately worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon, and he is desperately worried about the survival of Israel. And I am the strongest candidate on foreign policy and the strongest candidate on national security.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, President Obama outraised all of the Republicans. He brought in nearly $12 million last month, the pro-Obama super PAC less than $100,000.

And for a closer look at the fund-raising reports and the big spenders who are opening their wallets to support the Republican candidates, we’re joined by John Dunbar, managing editor of the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News.

And, John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN DUNBAR, Managing Editor, Center for Public Integrity: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, remind us, how did we get to this point at which the super PACs, supposedly not affiliated with the candidates, have in one month raised more than the candidates’ total?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, I believe someone is seeing the value of that. I think it’s directly related to the fact that you can give as much money to a super PAC as you want, whereas the candidate, you’re limited to $2,500 for the primary.

MARGARET WARNER: And so this is what was enabled by the so-called Citizens United Supreme Court case.

JOHN DUNBAR: Right. Citizens United and a lesser known decision after that called SpeechNow created these super PACs.

And what they are is political organizations that can accept unlimited donations from billionaires, corporations, labor unions, and use that money to try to defeat or support — right now, it’s mostly attack — a candidate in an election.

MARGARET WARNER: So, let’s start with Gingrich who — at least the balance is the most off, twice as much raised by the super PAC as he raised himself.

We just saw Sheldon Adelson. Is he the big fund-raiser, or are there other big billionaires or millionaires? And what have they themselves said about why they’re giving this much?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, Adelson is far and away the biggest — 80 percent-plus, most of — you know, $10 million out of the $11 million that was raised came from Sheldon Adelson.

He has got a long history with Newt Gingrich. They go back a long way. And they both have shared views on Israel. He’s a very sort of staunch Israel — supporter of Israel. And I think that’s where they’re — where they see eye to eye.

MARGARET WARNER: And then Santorum, now, his super PAC — or I shouldn’t call it his — the one supporting him in 2011, I think it only raised $700,000 — suddenly, $2 million. Who are his big givers — or the super PAC’s big givers?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, what’s interesting and disturbing to a lot of people is, there are not a lot of them. In Santorum’s case, there were two.

There’s a guy named Foster Friess, who is a former mutual fund manager who has made a lot of media lately for some off-color jokes. And then there’s somebody who came out of nowhere who is an oil executive from Louisiana, from Lake Charles, La., named William Dore — or Dore, I believe, is his name. And between the two of them, that’s the vast majority of the money that’s gone into that super PAC.

MARGARET WARNER: And have either of them said anything publicly about why?

JOHN DUNBAR: Friess has said lots of things publicly, including the Bayer aspirin comment about contraception.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN DUNBAR: And since then, he’s been a little bit lower-profile.

He thinks that Santorum has a better shot against Romney. He has said he has got better blue-collar credentials. I think they see more eye to eye on religious — they’re similar. He’s a — Santorum is a very devout Catholic. And Friess is a born-again Christian.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, on to Romney, Romney’s super PAC raised something like $30 million last year and just $6 million — and $6 million last month.

That’s a lot of money. How many big givers does he have — or does his super — that super PAC have?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, he’s had something like a dozen or so donors of — seven-figure donors — actually, seven seven-figure donors, plus another five that have given a combined $1 million. He has a lot more donors, and he’s raised a lot more money. He’s got an extraordinary. . .

MARGARET WARNER: And what sorts of people are they?

JOHN DUNBAR: They are very much like he is.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN DUNBAR: They are people who use other people’s money to make money, a lot of hedge fund people, a lot of private equity people, a lot of investors, what I would call sort of the investor class. They’re — they’re his biggest backers by far.

MARGARET WARNER: And not to leave out Ron Paul. What about him? He raised over $2 million. His super — that super PAC raised over $2 million.

JOHN DUNBAR: Ron Paul is interesting, too, because the guy who is backing him is interesting, this guy named Thiel. He was an early investor in Facebook. He was actually portrayed in the movie “Social Network” as the angel investor in that movie.

He’s a 44-year-old guy, worth lots of money. And he’s given something close to three-quarters of all of the money that has gone in to Endorse Liberty. And he is a very devout libertarian, very much a hands-off, government-hands-off-business kind of a guy.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly on President Obama, we saw — I mean, I think it was just — it was actually under $60,000 that the super PAC supporting him raised. Is that expected to change now that President Obama has said that some of his Cabinet officers can go to their events?

JOHN DUNBAR: Yeah, I think it will change.

It remains to be seen whether they’re going to be able to match the kind of firepower that the Republicans have, particularly American Crossroads, which is going to play a much greater role once the Republicans pick a candidate.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the Karl Rove super PAC, which is attacking President Obama.

JOHN DUNBAR: Right, which has raised an extraordinary amount of money. Coming down the stretch, we will see them kick it in. And then we will see what happens on the Obama side.

And the question is how much the unions have to spend, really.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, John Dunbar, thank you for walking us through that.

JOHN DUNBAR: Thank you.