Climate change activist Tom Steyer is the top megadonor of the 2016 cycle so far. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)
By: Soo Rin Kim
If you think campaign finance is just a right-wing billionaires' spending spree, take another look. Liberal money has been pouring into federal elections in recent years.
In 2012, when post-Citizen United money started flowing in earnest, wealthy Republicans took the leading roles. The number of individuals making contributions of $1 million or more grew from 16 in 2010 to 108 in 2012. That year, 69 percent of the $380 million coming from the top 100 individual donors was conservative money.
This election, liberal benefactors have worked to close the gap. So far this cycle, about 40 percent of the $558 million provided by the top 100 donors has come from Democrats.
In fact, seven of the 10 biggest donors this cycle are liberal, with the top slot occupied by climate change activist Tom Steyer. The San Francisco billionaire has spent a total of about $39 million so far, with most of it going to his own super PAC, NextGen Climate Action. NextGen, in turn, has spent more than $4.5 million opposing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Now, don't get us wrong: Most of the big money goes to outside groups like super PACs, and conservative groups are outspending liberal ones by almost two-to-one. But individual liberal donors come close to holding their own versus conservative ones in the upper reaches of those who have given most.
More from Dems or less from Republicans?
While liberal megadonors have gained ground this cycle over the last presidential election, the 2014 midterms saw them actually out in front: 61.5 percent of funds from the 100 biggest individual donors came from liberals; conservatives on the list gave just $112 million, roughly, of the $303 million total.
Current top donor Tom Steyer has been making small contributions since the early 1990s, but he wasn't close to making the top donors roster until 2014, when he forked over $75 million. That was twice as much as second-place donor Michael Bloomberg, even though the New York news mogul had doubled his outlays from $14 million in 2012 to $28.5 million -- most of which went to his super PAC, Independence USA PAC. And it was almost seven times the sum given by the biggest conservative megadonor, Paul Singer.
Campaign Finance Institute Executive Director Michael Malbin said top liberal donors may have arrived on the scene more slowly because they took more time to learn how to exploit the new landscape and build their own full-blown political staffs. Unlike Steyer and Bloomberg, who were using their own super PACs, conservative donors were giving to large existing outside spending groups such as American Crossroads in 2012.
Public Citizen lobbyist Craig Holman said another factor was the "Obama Phenomenon," which allowed Democrats to avoid relying on large scale donations in 2012.
"Obama excelled at candidate fundraising," Holman said. "Though he also made use of super PACs -- where megadonors contribute -- most of his money came in direct and limited candidate contributions. Super PACs were not the chief fundraising vehicles for Democrats until 2014."
In a marked difference with then-GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's campaign, 43 percent of President Barack Obama's $540 million in individual contributions came from donations of $200 or less in 2012.
Big liberal donations seem to have accelerated even more this cycle.
New York financier Donald Sussman, long a source of largess in Democratic politics, had only given $1.6 million by the end of the 2012 cycle, but has already spent about $26 million so far this cycle. Most of that has gone to Priorities USA Action in support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Money from liberal megadonors may be on the rise this cycle "because they are aghast at the thought of a Trump presidency and are putting their money where there brains and hearts are," said Miriam Galston, a law professor at George Washington University.
That's what has brought Hungarian-born investor George Soros out of his self-imposed dormancy as a big donor since his vigorous, but unsuccessful, 2004 effort against former President George W. Bush. Soros had said Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz are "doing the work of ISIS."
So where are the conservative megadonors?
Republicans lost two of their biggest donors in 2013. Texas homebuilder Bob J. Perry and a fellow Texan, Harold Simmons, gave a combined $50 million in the last presidential election cycle, mostly to conservative outside groups such as American Crossroads and Restore Our Future (the pro-Romney super PAC) in 2012. But both passed away the next year.
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is still around, but he has been relatively quiet until now.
In the 2012 cycle, Adelson dumped a total of $93 million into the system, making him by far the single biggest individual donor.
The GOP billionaire wrote several $5 million checks to Winning our Future, a super PAC backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential bid. When Gingrich dropped out of the race, Adelson quickly shifted gears and continued funding Restore our Future and American Crossroads.
Adelson has recently committed to giving more than $40 million by the end of this cycle to super PACs supporting congressional bids. And two GOP operatives told the Guardian that Adelson had given $10 million to a 501(c)(4) group called One Nation this year, though the group has not confirmed that. The "social welfare" organization isn't required to disclose its donors.
That group is the successor to Crossroads GPS, a dark money outfit masterminded by GOP operative Karl Rove that was very active in previous election cycles but faded as it became mired in a long battle with the IRS. One Nation has already spent at least $25 million on broadcast time this cycle, according to an analysis of FCC political ad buy records, but FEC data shows only about $1.5 million in expenditures by the group because its spending prior to early September didn't have to be reported to the agency.
One Nation and other 501(c) groups demonstrate a major caveat to any list of top donors: Unless there's a leak, there's no way to know whether individuals are giving heavily to nondisclosing groups.
Adelson appears finally to be coming off the sidelines in the presidential contest, though: He has recently pledged at least $25 million to a pro-Trump dark money group, 45Committee, and an associated super PAC, Future45, according to Politico. The groups are run by Todd Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and has a history of big Republican donations; he's urging other Republicans to fall in line. According to CNN, a Ricketts family insider said the family now has $35 million in the bank thanks to Adelson and is planning on boosting the number up to $70 million exclusively for the presidential bid.
"There is a substantial appetite for a nondisclosing vehicle, because it's embarrassing to support Trump," a GOP finance insider told Politico. "There are more donors who are willing to support Donald anonymously than with their names on it."
Ironically, earlier in the year, the Ricketts family helped lead the #NeverTrump movement, giving millions to Our Principles PAC in an effort to stop the combative billionaire from winning the Republican nomination. And they weren't alone in not supporting Trump -- which makes this cycle far different from 2012, when the biggest conservative spenders almost unanimously funneled the majority of their dollars to super PACs of similar purpose, American Crossroads and Restore Our Future, to attack President Obama and support Romney.
Another big donor to Our Principles? New York hedge funder Singer, who had spent $3.7 million, mostly on congressional elections, by the end of 2012; he has spent about $19.7 million already in 2015-16.
Singer still has not joined the Trump bandwagon. Since the Republican primaries ended, he's been focusing entirely on congressional bids, records show.
One of the few Republican top contributors who declared relatively early for the GOP nominee is another hedge fund manager, Robert Mercer. As the biggest conservative donor this cycle, Mercer has given $22.6 million so far, more than three times the $6 million he invested four years ago.
He began 2015 by dumping $11 million into an outside group backing Cruz called Keep the Promise I and then focused mainly on funding down-ticket races until after the super PAC refurbished itself as Make America Number 1 in late June 2016. The New Yorker has since given additional $2 million to the super PAC aiming to "defeat crooked Hillary."
Mercer's daughter Rebekah Mercer has been running the anti-Hillary group since September.
Doug Weber and Alex Baumgart contributed to this post.