WASHINGTON -- Billionaire industrialist Harold Simmons is pumping millions into super PACs to fight, in his words, "that socialist," President Barack Obama. A closer look at his contributions suggests that while he certainly hopes to oust Obama, Simmons' political giving has another goal as well: establishing his own influence within the Republican Party no matter who wins the nomination.
In the meantime, contributions from the Dallas businessman to super PACs supporting multiple Republican candidates have helped to sow the seeds of chaos in the nomination process by providing buoyancy to the presidential rivals.
Big-dollar contributions to these candidate-specific super PACs have helped fund crucial television advertising for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who, for most of the primary campaign, have been at a serious financial disadvantage to presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney. Even the contributions to the super PAC supporting Romney have been crucial, as they have saved the candidate from dipping into his personal fortune to pay for more advertising. The TV ads have mainly featured negative attacks that have dragged down approval ratings for all the candidates and extended the primary process.
Simmons, his company Contran Corp., and his wife, Annette, have combined to give $3.4 million, as of the end of February, to the super PACs backing individual Republican primary candidates -- putting them among the very top donors to the GOP field. They have sent $1.1 million to Gingrich-backing Winning Our Future, $1 million to the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund, another $1 million to Rick Perry-supporting Make Us Great Again, $200,000 to Romney-supporting Restore Our Future, and $100,000 to the pro-Perry Restoring Prosperity Fund.
As a March 22 Wall Street Journal profile notes, "Mr. Simmons isn't driven by an attraction to a specific candidate or policy." Ironically, that lack of preference may be undermining all of the GOP candidates.
The $1.1 million contributed to the Gingrich super PAC helped to pay for multiple attack ads against Romney, including some based on a documentary blasting Romney as a "vulture capitalist" who made money off closed factories and bankrupted businesses. The $1 million to the Santorum super PAC came in time to finance its turn to negative ads, assailing Romney as the author of the "blueprint for Obamacare," in the Michigan primary and beyond. As for the Romney super PAC, it's been the most negative of all the super PACs, portraying Santorum and Gingrich as big-spending, debt-supporting pseudo-conservatives.
While having a destabilizing effect in the primary, the massive Simmons-related contributions may serve to promote Simmons himself as a top donor with important interests in federal and state laws and regulations.
"You can't read his mind and what he's thinking, but it obviously gives the candidates more money and extends the process longer," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation. "On the flip side, it gives him more influence with the candidates."
Simmons has vast holdings in regulated industries like nuclear waste disposal and chemical and metal manufacturing, which Allison explored in an article illuminating Simmons' history of political giving.
Simmons told the Wall Street Journal that government oversight and regulation of his business empire, specifically an accusation by the Labor Department that he had misused pension fund assets while making investments, sparked his political activism. "That's when I started contributing to politicians with free-market and anti-regulation agendas ... If the Labor Department hadn't sued, that pension would be as rich as me," he said.
The donations by Simmons' wife have already earned her a visit from Santorum. Annette Simmons told ABC News that her contributions to the Santorum super PAC, including another $200,000 in March, were made because "he's the kind of man I would want to be president."
That additional $200,000 came in time to fund advertising in both Louisiana and Texas, two states where Santorum could do well. Santorum wins in those states would likely drag out the primary process even longer, despite the large delegate lead amassed by Romney.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination, the Simmons stand to benefit from their divided support by solidifying their position as key brokers in the party.
"Whatever Santorum does, [Simmons will] have influence, and he's raised his profile in the party," Allison said. "Doing Santorum a favor may be what Simmons is thinking in giving the money."