-By Matt Sledge
March 13, 2012- Don't cry for the sugar daddies. Rick Santorum may be down and Rick Perry may be out, but the billionaires and millionaires who bet big on them have plenty of other politicians to bankroll — especially those running for powerful seats at the state level, like governorships in swing states.
The donors pumping money through federal super PACs in the post-Citizens United universe have in many cases also given extensively at the state level, according to a report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Showering local politicians with money has been easy to do for decades, especially in states immune to the tighter post-Watergate campaign finance laws that tried to rein in spending on presidential and Congressional races.
Among the big five super PAC donors — the handful who have donated a full 25 percent of money flowing through super PACs — Harold Simmons, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and Bob Perry have all spread hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars at the state level. Only Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic libertarian backing Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), gave relatively little to local candidates between 2008 and 2011.
Before the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which essentially opened the spigot to unlimited campaign contributions at the federal level as long as they were funneled through super PACs, some states already offered examples of what a donations free-for-all looked like. Candidate Mitt Romney himself has likewise seen the value in spreading campaign cash around to win influential friends at the state level. Since 2008 he has doled out nearly $1.8 million in donations to state officials, according to iWatch News.
Such state contributions have proved especially critical in swing states like Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, where money changed hands with scant legal limits and donations that would seem relatively minor on the national stage could push the needle in key races.
In New Mexico in 2009, after then Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was denied a spot in the Obama administration over an alleged pay-to-play contract, the state placed limits on campaign contributions. But in the 2010 election cycle — before the new law took effect — a Wyoming multi-millionaire named Foster Friess gave the Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez $200,000. It was just a portion of the $856,170 he spent at the state level between 2008 and 2011, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and was an even smaller part of a fortune estimated to be about $530 million. Friess did not respond to a request for comment.
At the time, the then-“press-shy” Friess lived in relative obscurity. But the conservative Christian had a mission: reverse the social and economic changes made by the Obama administration. In June 2010 Friess joined other major Republican donors in a post-midterm, Koch brothers-sponsored conference that included a session on “how supporters of economic freedom might start planning today” for the 2012 election, according to The New York Times.
Friess seems to have been thinking strategically. Along with other states in the Mountain West, New Mexico has turned into a crucial swing state since 2000, and with that status has come campaign cash. “We just haven't seen that money until recently,” said Viki Harrison, executive director for Common Cause New Mexico. But now, she said, national political players are looking to spend in the state, where the political kingmakers of tomorrow are running today — “and that's going to really trickle down to our state elections.”
After Martinez went on to win in New Mexico, the new state campaign contribution law took effect, so Friess won't be able to give a candidate for governor in the state so much money again. But the January 2010 Citizens United decision meant that Friess could spend huge sums directly on candidates' super PACs at the federal level instead.