In 2010, billionaires’ midterm donations amounted to $32 million, according to Americans for Tax Fairness. That figure soared to $611 million in the 2018 midterms, and then jumped by nearly 75% to more than $1 billion in 2022. Almost 60% of that money went to Republicans, including donations made directly to candidates and party committees, which are restricted in how much they can collect from each donor, Americans for Tax Fairness said.
Americans for Tax Fairness said billionaire influence on U.S. politics “is even greater than campaign-finance records reveal” because of “dark money” that can be funneled to super PACs through nonprofit organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors or donations. That amount cannot be determined. What should also be noted is that most of that billionaire money wasn’t spread all over the map but was concentrated in competitive House and Senate races.
“Billionaires spending a billion dollars on a shopping spree for democracy should wake us all up to the threat posed by nearly unlimited wealth applied without limits to our elections,” David Kass, ATF’s executive director, said in a press release introducing the report
“There are well-known solutions to the problem, including overturning Citizens United and effectively taxing the biggest sources of billionaire wealth, which now often go lightly taxed if at all. Those tax reforms include taxing wealth like work by equalizing the top tax rate on investment and wage income, and closing the stepped-up basis loophole that allows investment gains to go untaxed forever. All that’s needed is for Congress to heed the call of the American people to unrig a corrupt system.”
Democrats managed to reduce the anticipated red wave to a trickle, but Republicans did seize control of the House of Representatives by a slim five-seat margin. That’s resulted in the GOP hostage-taking ploy over raising the debt ceiling to avert a catastrophic U.S. government default.
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Some of today’s billionaire class are clearly anti-democratic. Tech financier Peter Thiel, a major donor to PACs supporting the successful Senate campaign of J.D. Vance in Ohio and the losing campaign of Blake Masters in Arizona, once wrote: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Many billionaires are content with a divided Congress incapable of passing any meaningful legislation to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy or impose more stringent business regulations. And that list goes on to include legislation on voting and abortion rights, the climate crisis, gun regulations, and, of course, campaign finance reform.
Just look at the Republican response when President Joe Biden proposed closing tax loopholes for wealthy Americans and corporations as part of any plan to deal with reducing the budget deficit. They laughed at the mere suggestion. The New Republic reported:
When a reporter asked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy if he would consider raising taxes on wealthy Americans, he answered with a short “No” before the question was even finished. Republicans standing around him groaned and shook their heads. They then began laughing when McCarthy asked where the reporter was earlier.
Let’s look at some of the key findings from the report:
- Billionaire contributions, from fewer than 500 individuals, represented 11% of all donations in federal contests—up from less than 1% in 2010.
- Nearly 80% of billionaire cash—$782 million—went to outside campaign groups, most of which were super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts from each donor.
- In the eight most competitive Senate races of 2022, billionaires favored Republican over Democratic candidates by an almost 5-1 margin in outside spending.
- Even in the elite world of billionaires, political giving is highly concentrated, just 15 of the nation’s 725 or so top tycoons were responsible for almost two-thirds—or $658 million—of the group’s total campaign contributions.
So who were the 15 most-generous billionaire donors in the 2022 midterms? Well, 11 of them supported Republicans, while only four backed Democrats.
The biggest donor of all was a Democrat—George Soros, the GOP’s favorite billionaire boogeyman—but nearly all of his $128.6 million in contributions went to his own Democracy PAC II. A lot of that money did not go to 2022 campaigns.
In a statement shared with Politico, Soros said his Democracy PAC was intended as as “a long-term investment” in his political priorities by supporting pro-democracy “causes and candidates, regardless of political party” who are invested in “strengthening the infrastructure of American democracy: voting rights and civic participation, civil rights and liberties, and the rule of law.”
The second largest billionaire backer for Democrats unfortunately was the indicted FTX cryptocurrency exchange founder Sam Bankman-Fried, but Americans for Tax Fairness said most of the $40.3 million he spent went to candidates in Democratic primaries, not to defeat Republicans in the general election. Bankman-Fried also said he donated an equal amount to Republican candidates, but those donations “were dark,” Time reported.
As for Republicans, the list includes some familiar names, including Thiel, Larry Ellison, Miriam Adelson, and Koch Industries. But the top three Republican billionaire backers are perhaps less known: Richard and Liz Uihlein ($84.1 million), Ken Griffin ($72.6 million), and Jeff Yass ($54.8 million).
The Uihleins, the GOP’s Wisconsin-based power donor couple, own the lucrative shipping supplies company Uline. Richard Uihlein is also an heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune. Politico reported that the couple support rival factions within the GOP: Liz is more supportive of the party establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Richard has backed hard-right insurgent candidates. He was also reportedly one of the biggest financial supporters of the Jan. 6 Trump rally outside the White House that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Griffin, the CEO of the Citadel hedge fund which relocated from Chicago to Miami last year, has been a major donor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaigns, but may be hedging his bets because of some of DeSantis’ recent slip ups. Griffin wants a viable GOP alternative to Donald Trump.
Yass made his fortune as an options trader and founded the Philadelphia-based Susquehanna International Group, a privately held trading and technology company. He is on the board of directors of the libertarian Cato Institute. His big issue is “school choice,” pushing charter schools as an alternative to public schools. He’s been in the news recently for meddling in Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary by making large donations to a super PAC airing negative political ads and sending out mailers that attacked progressive candidate Helen Gym.
The Amerians for Tax Fairness report looked closely at how billionaires weighed in heavily in eight key Senate races in 2022. In each of these states billionaires spent much more money supporting Republicans over Democrats.
Democrats won five of those races—in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. In these states overall outside spending—despite the lopsided edge in billionaire spending—was relatively even, with Democrats enjoying a slight advantage in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
Democrats also benefited from poor quality Trump-backed candidates such as Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and Dan Bolduc in New Hampshire.
But in the three Senate races that Democrats lost, Republicans enjoyed a huge spending advantage over their Democratic opponents thanks to billionaires who provided 40.7% of the outside spending in North Carolina, 54.9% in Wisconsin, and 65.2% in Ohio, according to Americans for Tax Fairness.
In North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—won by Republicans Ted Budd, Vance, and incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson “Republican billionaires outspent the much smaller pool of Democratic billionaires by at least 9-to-1 in each state, Americans for Tax Fairness reported.”
In Wisconsin, Johnson narrowly defeated Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes by 50.5% to 49.5%, a margin of under 27,000 votes. Johnson benefited from $77 million in outside spending compared to $47.2 million for Barnes. But billionaires provided $42.3 million of the outside spending in support of Johnson, while Barnes only received $4.5 million in support from billionaires.
According to the report, the single-candidate Wisconsin Truth PAC spent almost $29 million boosting Johnson’s candidacy, 80% of which came from billionaires, in particular the Uihleins and Diane Hendricks, whose fortune derives from ABC supply, a construction materials company she built with her late husband. Hendricks was No. 11 on Americans for Tax Fairness’s list of the top 15 billionaire contributors to the 2022 midterms at $25.7 million.
So instead of a more workable Senate majority, Democrats ended up with a 51-49 margin in the midterms, which was further reduced when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona switched from Democrat to independent. And conservadem Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia remains in a key role as a potential roadblock to Democratic initiatives and nominees.
And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that both Manchin and Sinema have received donations from GOP billionaire donors as they worked to undermine Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better agenda.
And here’s the kicker: Among the billionaire GOP donors to both Sinema and Manchin was Justice Clarence Thomas’ benefactor, Harlan Crow, according to an Insider review of campaign finance data.
In the conclusion to its report, Americans for Tax Fairness said the record amount of billionaire political spending in the 2022 midterms is “almost certain to be surpassed in future elections as the twin impact of loose campaign-finance laws and inadequate taxation of the ultra-wealthy continues to be felt.”
“We must end the vicious cycle of the ultra-wealthy using their vast fortunes to exploit a broken campaign finance system to support candidates who will cut their taxes, allowing them to amass even greater wealth which they can use to continue the process. When billionaires throw huge sums of money into elections, they shape the debate to their liking and in the process distort our democracy.”
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