Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and family poured nearly $40 million into the coffers of GOP-aligned super PACs In the final three weeks of the 2012 campaign, bringing their total giving to the groups to more than $93 million.
Adelson ranks as the top donor to the outside spending groups by a wide margin, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance records.
Super PACs raised roughly $830 million in the 2012 election, with conservative groups accounting for about 60 percent of the total, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
By contrast, President Barack Obama's presidential campaign raised nearly $720 million and Republican challenger Mitt Romney's raised almost $450 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
In all, the top 25 super PAC super donors doled out more than $310 million, about 37 percent of all super PAC receipts, according to the Center's analysis of data from the FEC and Center for Responsive Politics. Ninety-one individuals gave at least $1 million to super PACs and collectively donated more than $330 million, according to the analysis.
The unlimited donations, which are used primarily to fund candidate attack ads, concern advocates such as Stephen Spaulding, staff counsel at Common Cause.
"People are able to distort the political process, open doors and be kingmakers simply because of the size of their bank account," he said. "The threat of the spending just hangs over all the political decisions that are happening on [Capitol] Hill."
After focusing primarily on the presidential contest, in the final weeks of the campaign, Adelson ramped up his giving to GOP-aligned super PACs active in House and Senate races.
In Virginia alone, Adelson invested $4 million into a super PAC that ran attack ads against Democrat Tim Kaine in the final days of the election.
His million-dollar contribution to a super PAC called the "Hardworking Americans Committee" accounted for the bulk of the money used in an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to defeat incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
And a GOP-aligned super PAC known as the "America 360 Committee" received $500,000 from the Adelsons as it touted incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and criticized Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in telephone calls and mailings.
Despite the spending, however, Democrats prevailed in the most contentious races -- including battles for U.S. Senate seats in Massachusetts and Virginia.
Adelson's donations to super PACs -- which can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions -- set a new standard in political giving.
Texas businessman Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of Contran Corp., ranked a distant second among super donors, giving $30.9 million, including donations from his company and wife, Annette Simmons.
One of Simmons' business ventures includes a site in West Texas built to store nuclear waste. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently debating rules that could result in sizeable contracts for Simmons' company.
Another Texan, millionaire Bob Perry, ranked third, giving $23.5 million to conservative super PACs. Perry is the owner of Perry Homes and an advocate for the business-led effort to limit damages awarded in lawsuits.
Millionaires and billionaires pepper the Center's list of the top 25 super donors. The list also includes seven unions and the Republican Governors Association, a so-called "527 committee" that used a super PAC to direct funds into state races. None of these donors broke the $20 million mark.
Billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, No. 9, was a new addition to the list. Bloomberg gave more than $10 million to a group he launched called Independence USA PAC, whose priorities include stronger gun control laws and marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Other new additions to the Center's list of top donors include:
- William S. Rose, Jr., No. 6, the 61-year-old attorney tied to two companies that gave more than $12 million to conservative super PAC FreedomWorks for America since the beginning of October;
- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, No. 12 at $8.2 million;
- the American Federation of Teachers, No. 15 at $5.8 million; and
- the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry, tied for 23rd at $4.2 million.
Rose's companies -- Specialty Investments Group, Inc., and Kingston Pike Development, LLC-- both list their address as Rose's $634,000 private home outside of Knoxville, Tenn. Both were registered with the state of Tennessee in late September, and neither have websites.
Rose, after intense press scrutiny, went public saying Specialty's mission is to "buy, sell, develop and invest in a variety of real estate ventures and investments." Rose released a lengthy press release, but did not indicate where the money for the donations originated.
Rose did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The top Democratic-aligned super donor was Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, who gave $14.1 million over the course of the election cycle, split among five groups. That sum earned him the No. 4 spot on the Center's top 25 list.
The pro-Obama Priorities USA Action super PAC collected $4.5 million from Eychaner, ranking as his top beneficiary. He also backed Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, Women Vote!, the super PAC of abortion rights advocacy group EMILY's List, and America Votes Action Fund, a super PAC that funded get-out-the-vote efforts.
Liberal billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros* made it on the list, donating about $2.8 million split among four Democratic groups. His children Andrea, Alexander and Jonathan also each donated six-figure sums to Democratic super PACs, as did his daughter-in-law Melissa, bringing the family's total giving to $5.1 million, enough to rank 18th.
Soros' children collectively gave $1.1 million to the pro-campaign finance reform super PAC "Friends of Democracy," which was launched by Jonathan Soros.
This is a far cry from the $23.7 million Soros donated during the 2004 election to 527 groups -- the predecessors of super PACs -- when he ranked as the top 527 committee financier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Despite fears to the contrary, donations from blue-chip corporations were rare, although a month before the election, Chevron, the third-largest American company according to Forbes, donated $2.5 million to a Republican super PAC closely allied with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
One of the largest, high-profile corporate donors was Weaver Holdings, the parent company of the Indiana-popcorn company known for its brands "Pop Weaver" and "Trail's End," which is sold by Boy Scouts across the country. Weaver Holdings, along with Weaver Popcorn, donated $3.4 million to American Crossroads, including $1 million during the final three weeks of the election.
American Crossroads was co-founded by GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.
Unlike traditional political action committees, there is no limit on contributions to super PACs. They emerged following the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and a federal court ruling called SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission.
Adelson is a staunch ally of Israel and an opponent of unions. He first hit the news when he and his relatives pumped more than $16 million into a super PAC that supported former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich's failed bid for the Republican nomination for president.
He and his wife Miriam gave $30 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which accounted for nearly 20 percent of the nearly $154 million raised by the group.
In late October, the Adelsons also gave $23 million to American Crossroads, their first donations to the group. Crossroads spent more than $90 million in an unsuccessful effort to help Romney oust Obama.
Roughly two-thirds of Adelson's $93 million went to super PACs that backed just one or two specific candidates. None of Adelson's preferred candidates prevailed in any of the 10 races in which these super PACs were active.
Earlier this month, a defiant Adelson told the Wall Street Journal that he would spend even more money in future elections.
"I happen to be in a unique business where winning and losing is the basis of the entire business," Adelson told the newspaper. "I don't cry when I lose. There's always a new hand coming up."
*George Soros is the chairman of the Open Society Foundation, which provides funding for the Center for Public Integrity. For a list of the Center's donors, visit this page on our website.