Over the past few weeks, Sheldon Adelson made headlines for his outsized gifts to Newt Gingrich, which have quickly turned him into the biggest individual spender in the 2012 election cycle. But while the casino mogul's huge donations have elevated Gingrich's chances in the Republican primaries, they've also raised quite a few eyebrows.
Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and the rise of super PACs, billionaires and corporations are able to make almost unlimited political donations, leading an growing number of pundits to wonder aloud if the U.S. presidency is now for sale. And if Adelson is the highest bidder, who will end up running the game?
A Self-Made Man
Adelson is pretty much the definition of a self-made man. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, he dropped out of City College of New York before starting several businesses, including a chartered bus tour company, a business selling toiletry kits to hotels, and an investment firm. In 1979, he hit pay dirt when he helped create COMDEX, which became the premier computer trade show. A few years later, he purchased the Las Vegas' Sands hotel and casino. It became the first property in a resort empire that stretches now around the globe. A former Democrat, he switched parties when he became wealthy and wanted to reduce his taxes. As The New Yorkerreported in 2008, he allegedly told an associate, "Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher
percentage of taxes than anyone else?"
With a personal fortune of $21.5 billion -- he's the eighth-richest person in America -- Adelson can bring a seemingly-unlimited war chest to bear for a candidate who captures his interest. Right now, that's Newt Gingrich, whose low-tax, pro-Israel stances appeal to Adelson. And the casino owner has shown his approval in the form of fat checks: He and his wife have given $10 million to "Winning the Future," a pro-Gingrich super PAC.
Enough Money to Pay a Small Town
It's hard to put these donations into the context of an average American household: To begin with, most Americans don't contribute to political candidates, and, when they do, their gifts are modest. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, only 0.12% of the adult American population has given more than $200 in this election cycle -- that's 12 in 10,000 of us -- and a mere 0.03% -- fewer than 71,000 people overall -- gave more than $2,500. Forget the 1%: Adelson and his wife are the 0.00000001% who stand at the pinnacle of the 0.03%.
To put it another way, the Adelson's $10 million contribution to the Gingrich campaign equals the yearly salary of more than 200 average American households. Yes, Adelson and his wife gave the yearly income of a small town in order to help Gingrich win the South Carolina primary and keep his head above water in Florida. The average political donor -- or voter -- can hardly hope to keep up.
On the surface, at least, there are restrictions in place to keep the rich from controlling the political conversation. Officially, individuals are only allowed to donate $5,000 to a presidential candidate -- $2,500 in the primary, and $2,500 in the general election. However, super PACs -- political action committees that are, allegedly, not connected to specific candidates -- are allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money.
Until a few years ago, such groups weren't allowed to specifically endorse candidates: They had to limit themselves to "issue advocacy," in which they ostensibly educated voters on a specific issue. This, for example, is why a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was able to attack John Kerry's military record, but was not allowed to specifically endorse his opponent, George W. Bush.
But that carefully drawn line disappeared in 2010 with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which allowed nonprofit groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- or Gingrich's Winning the Future -- to directly endorse candidates. The only catch is, the super PAC can't have a direct relationship with the candidate. In other words, "Winning the Future" can run unlimited ads endorsing Gingrich, but its leaders can't take their marching orders directly from the candidate. Allegedly, they draw their ideas from his speeches and from the topics of the day.
Separated ... Like the Corsican Twins
Yet this separation is hard to prove -- and harder to believe. Winning the Future takes its name from Gingrich's book of the same title, and the super PAC's president, Becky Burkett, was previously the head of fundraising at American Secrets for Winning the Future, a Gingrich-owned PAC. A senior adviser, Rick Tyler, was previously Gingrich's press secretary. In other words, while Winning the Future's leaders may not be talking directly to Gingrich or his campaign, at least two of them are very used to figuring out what Newt is thinking. To get an only slightly exaggerated idea of how this works, one need look no further than the recent super PAC storyline on The Daily Show.
Gingrich's Winning the Future and Colbert's Americans for a Better Tomorrow aren't the only super PACs whose relationships to candidates are somewhat questionable. Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC that plans to raise $100 million, is run by two former Obama aides, while the treasurer of pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future was legal counsel on the candidate's 2008 presidential bid.
So while Adelson is currently the big man on campus when it comes to bloated super PACs, it's likely that he is only the harbinger of things to come. As the liberal magazine Mother Jones recently reported, several individuals have already donated more than $1 million in the current election cycle, and with wealthy donors like the progressive George Soros and the ultra-conservative Koch brothers waiting in the wings, this should be an exciting election -- unless you're a middle class voter who wants your voice to be heard too.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.