In this year’s elections, big donors have the chance to play a role almost as large as the candidates themselves. For the first time in a presidential election, wealthy individuals have no restrictions on how much money they can spend in support of a politician or cause.
So-called super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums as long as they disclose their sources, allow donors to change elections with the flick of a pen. Quite a few big check-writers have exercised this newfound power, some by boosting particular candidates and others by promoting their own pet causes.
These 12 donors gave more money to influence the election than anyone else this year.
It’s worth noting, however, that not all big givers want the spotlight afforded to super PAC titans. While super PACs must disclose their donors, political nonprofits, such as Karl Rove’s 501(c)(4) group Crossroads GPS, do not.
The election’s 14th-largest donor, Wyoming Republican Foster Freiss, explained the logic behind this giving strategy earlier this year.
“Well I’m going to [support Romney] more undercover, I’m going to do it through a lot of c4′s so it’s not so high profile,” Friess said at the Faith and Freedom Conference. “If you give to a c4, it doesn’t get disclosed. … So if I give money to various organizations, nobody knows what I’m giving. Even my wife won’t know.”
So, to be clear, here’s a list of the 12 people who spent the most money on the 2012 election—and don’t care if you know about it:
1) Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam ($36.8 million) - Adelson owns Las Vegas Sands Corp., a corporation that brought in $9.4 billion last yearand owns casinos accross the world, including The Venetian in Las Vegas. In June, he said he would spend $100 million to defeat President Obama. The couple gave $16.5 million to Newt Gingrich’s super PAC, $10 million to Mitt Romney’s, and another $10 million to various conservative groups. Pet Issues: Gambling and casino regulation, corporate taxes, Israel.
2) Bob Perry and wife Doylene ($21.4 million) - Perry, the founder and CEO of Texas home builder Perry Homes, has given $9.5 million to Romney’s super PAC and $6.5 million to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads this cycle. Perry and his wife have sunk an estimated $66 million into state and federal politics since 2000. Pet Issue: tort reform (Perry Homes has been sued often).
3) Harold Simmons and wife Annette ($19 million) - The Simmons’ are the largest donors to American Crossroads, having given $13.5 million this cycle. Mr. Simmons owns Contran Corp., a chemical and metals conglomerate with several publicly-traded subsidiaries. Simmons is often credited with inventing the leveraged buyout, in which a firm uses the assets of the company being acquired as collateral for the loan. Pet issues: Hazardous and solid waste storage and disposal, Superfund site regulation, environmental regulation.
4) Joe Ricketts and wife Marlene ($12.9 million) - Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade, made headlines in May when his proposed anti-Obama campaign was leaked to the New York Times. Almost all of his contributions have been to his super PAC Ending Spending Fund, which has spent its cash opposing Obama and promoting Romney. Interestingly, his daughter Laura bundled thousands for Obama and founded LPAC, a super PAC for gay and lesbian voters. Pet issue: Deficit reduction.
5) Fred Eychaner ($8.1 million) - Eychaner, the largest Democratic donor this cycle, has given at least $1 million to Obama’s super PAC as well as the super PACs supporting Democrats in the House and Senate. Eychaner is the president and CEO of Newsweb Corp., a Chicago media company that publishes weekly and alternative newspapers across the country. Pet issue: Gay rights, the arts.
6) James Simons and wife Marilyn ($7.7 million) – Simons founded New York-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and is worth an estimated $11 billion. Simons’ contributions nearly mirror Eychaner’s—he’s given $3 million to Senate Democrats’ super PAC, $3.5 million to Obama’s super PAC, and $1 million to House Democrats’ super PAC this cycle. Pet issues: STEM education and research, finance taxes, such as carried interest and capital gains.
7) Peter Thiel ($4.8 million) - Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and first outside investor in Facebook, is the only reportedly libertarian donor to make the list. About $3.7 million of his contributions went to super PACs supporting Ron Paul. The venture capitalist has also made unconventional investments: in autonomous sea colonies, private space transport company Space X, and anti-aging research, among others. Pet issues: libertarianism, technology.
Robert Mercer and wife Diana ($3.9 million) - Mercer is the co-CEO, with James Simons, of Renaissance Technologies—the hedge fund that invests using complicated quantitative analysis. Politically, he is Simons’ opposite, having given $1 million each to American Crossroads and Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Pet issue: taxes related to finance.
9) Amy Goldman ($3.8 million) - Goldman, best known for her books and advocacy on gardening and seed-saving, has given $1 million each to the super PACs for Obama and Planned Parenthood this cycle. Pet issue: women’s reproductive rights.
10) John Childs and wife Marlene ($3.5 million) - Childs is the CEO of Boston-based private equity firm J.W. Childs. He and his wife have given $1 million to Romney’s super PAC and $1.1 million to Tea Party group Club for Growth, where he sits on the board. Pet issues: Wetlands preservation, conservative causes.
11) Jeffrey Katzenberg and wife Marilyn ($3.4 million) - Katzenberg is the CEO of Dreamworks Animation and former chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. He and his wife are the biggest of Obama’s myriad Hollywood supporters, having given $3 million to the president’s super PAC. He also organized a fundraiser that raised $15 million. Pet issues: Liberal causes.
12) Steve Mostyn and wife Amber ($3.3 million) - Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer, is the rare big Democratic donor from Texas. He and his wife have given about $1 million each to Obama’s super PAC and the House Democrats’ super PAC. According to a New York Times story on the early troubles of Obama’s super PAC, the Mostyns gave reluctantly, after being hounded about the possibility of a Romney White House. Pet issue: Liberal causes.
Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.