Even the great majority of wealthy Americans — the types who might attend a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser — are increasingly irrelevant players in a political game defined by a tiny group of multi-millionaires and billionaires who can write six, seven and eight figure checks.
The new paradigm is particularly obvious in Texas. While Ted Cruz’s official campaign raised roughly $10 million from thousands of contributions that were capped at $2,700 per person, four Super PACs supporting him raised $36 million from a handful of billionaires. And while Rick Perry’s campaign reported a measly $1 million in contributions this year, his affiliated Super PACs brought in $13 million from a number of the former governor’s billionaire buddies.
These mega-donors are putting Texas on the map. Of the $217 million raised by the top 10 Republican presidential Super PACs, more than $50 million, or 23 percent, came from Texas. Some of them are well-known political donors, such as San Antonio Spurs owner Pete Holt and pipeline baron Kelcy Warren, while others only recently emerged from relative obscurity by writing enormous checks. The vast majority of that money went to three candidates with strong Texas links: Perry, Cruz and Jeb Bush. Here’s a who’s who of Texas GOP sugar daddies.
While very few Americans contributed to the four Super PACs — all with a variation of the name “Keeping The Promise” — supporting the tea party senator’s presidential campaign, the handful who did really made it count. Cruz’s most profitable group, Keeping The Promise III, raised $15 million, all of which came from Dan and Farris Wilks, the billionaire founders of Frac Tech, and their wives.
Hailing from tiny Cisco, Texas, the Wilks differ from most mega-donors in their fervent support for socially conservative causes. Farris, a pastor at an Assembly of Yahweh church, warned the Christian Broadcasting Network last year that the nation’s youth were “being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right.”
The Wilks’ ideological interests could explain why they have their own PAC. As one anonymous GOP strategist explained to CNN in April, candidates create multiple Super PACs to offer rich donors greater discretion over how their money is spent. Donors such as the Wilks, for instance, may demand that their money is used on specific activities or messaging.
Toby Neugebauer, the co-founder of Quantum Energy Partners, a Houston-based firm that invests in energy interests, and son of U.S. Representative Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, contributed $10 million to a separate Cruz entity, Keeping The Promise II, to which he was the sole donor. It is unclear what the top priorities are for Neugebauer, whose official address is now in Puerto Rico, where he moved his family last year, saying he wanted his children to learn Spanish and be in better schools.
Rick Perry enjoys the support of three Super PACs, two of which have made detailed financial filings. Opportunity and Freedom PAC is a rather exclusive club of three dozen wealthy Texas donors, many of whom are involved in businesses that benefited greatly from Perry’s governorship. Members include Peter Holt, who runs a heavy equipment business founded by his great-uncle and is one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs. Holt and his wife each gave the PAC $250,000. Also chipping in a quarter million bucks was Brint Ryan, the CEO of a major consulting firm that specializes in seeking tax breaks for large corporations — and represented more than half of the companies that received credits under the state’s Enterprise Zone Program. James D. Pitcock, whose road construction company, Williams Brothers, has won hundreds of millions of dollars in state highway contracts, gave $100,000 to the group.
But by far the largest donor to Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which raised a rather meager total of $2.7 million, was Kelcy Warren, a longtime prolific donor with a net worth of $6.4 billion and the founder and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, one of the two companies recently awarded a $770 million contract to build a highly controversial natural gas pipeline through the Big Bend region. Warren’s $1 million contribution to the group accounted for over a third of its total haul.
Two companies also returned favors to the former governor. The North Cypress Medical Center, a doctor-owned hospital outside of Houston, contributed $100,000. Perry’s sister, Milla Jones Perry, is a full-time lobbyist for a chain of doctor-owned hospitals and has worked with industry groups to push back against proposed restrictions on doctor-owned medical centers. Brother Perry appeared to be an easy sell; he became a big proponent of the doctor-owned industry himself, pushing back against congressional efforts to restrict the industry in 2009. The other business that gave to the Super PAC is Austin Precision Products, an affiliate of LaRue Tactical, a Leander-based gun manufacturer whose products Perry has enthusiastically promoted in the past. He’s a proud owner of a LaRue rifle and has been spotted on national TV wearing a LaRue polo.
But the real action for Perry comes through Opportunity and Freedom I — the VIP room that seems to have been set up specifically for Perry’s two biggest sugar daddies: Warren and Dallas businessman Darwin Deason, both of whom wrote $5 million checks to the group. The founder of Affiliated Computer Systems, Deason netted $1.5 billion when his company was purchased by Xerox.
A third Perry Super PAC, Opportunity and Freedom II, has reportedly raised $4 million from a single donor, but details won’t be disclosed until January.
Jeb may no longer be a Texan, but he’s still got a lot of friends here. His Super PAC, Right to Rise, raised more than $17 million from the state where he grew up, more than any state except Florida. Trevor Rees-Jones, the billionaire head of Chief Oil and Gas, and his wife, Jan, each gave $1 million. Fellow billionaire Fayez Sarofim, an octogenarian heir to a major Egyptian fortune, coughed up $500,000, as did John Nau, the head of a major beer distributor. Ditto for Midland oil man Javaid Anwar. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair gave half a million to both the Bush group and Unintimidated PAC, the Super PAC supporting Scott Walker.
Compared to some other PACs, Bush’s donor base — who each gave an average of roughly $35,000 to the group — is large and diverse. The roughly 3,000 donors represent a much larger group of people than any other Super PAC, and some of them gave relatively small contributions. But it’s still hardly representative of the public. For instance, because the committee helpfully assigned a honorific (Mr., Ms., etc.) to every donor, it was easy to calculate the gender distribution. There were 2,662 donors listed as “Mr.,” and only 531 listed as either “Ms.” or “Mrs.”
None of the other prominent Republican Super PACs has raised much money from Texas, a fact that might be disappointing to Walker, whose historic triumph in a 2012 recall election was largely funded by out-of-state donors, many from Texas. None of the several dozen donors to Priorities USA, the Super PAC backing Hillary Clinton, listed Texas addresses. Most were from California or New York.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently applauded the news that Super PACs had raised so much money from so few people. But the paper warned that there was much more work to be done.
“In a better world Americans could donate as much as they want to any candidate, not merely to super Pacs,” it continued. “But until that day arrives, thank the super Pacs and their donors for increasing political competition.”
For several hundred Texas billionaires and multimillionaires, this presidential election indeed is much more competitive. Candidates and their Super PACs are competing viciously for their support in a way that they didn’t when there were stricter limits on fundraising.
But that, of course, is a competition most Texans are not invited to.