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Why There Aren't More Koch-Style Billionaires In Politics

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AP Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack

It's something of a counterintuitive point given that thanks to the Citizens United ruling the wealthiest Americans can spend an unprecedented amount of money in politics and on political campaigns. The amount of money they can donate drastically dwarfs that of the average American, a point that underscores recent research that found interest groups and wealthy elites play a drastically more influential role in politics today than your average American.

What's more, The Washington Post noted on Tuesday that since the Supreme Court's McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission ruling, which tossed out the limit on how much donors can give to political committees at the federal level in a two-year election cycle, the top roughly 300 political donors have surpassed the former maximum $123,200 contribution limit during the 2014 midterm.

Those donors, in total, had given $50.2 million to candidates at the federal and political committees by the summer of 2014, the Post said, including the $11.6 million that they could have donated before the high court's ruling. Of the donors that did surpass the new limit, $33.3 million went to Republican candidates and Republican-associated committees while about half — $15.6 million — went to Democratic candidates and Democratic-associated committees.

Those 300-some billionaires seem to have embraced this new role in politics eagerly, but many also sit on the sidelines and there doesn't seem to be one single reason why.

Boston College political scientist Kay L. Schlozman, co-author of The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy, pointed to one reason. "I think there are plenty of people who aren't that political," Schlozman told TPM. They may have way more money than the average American — many times over in fact — but but the number of rabid political junkies is just as small as in the rest of the population, Schlozman added.

"Some of them like to play golf and some of them like to have sailboats. There's a certain taste," Schlozman said.

The contrast is that there are some wealthy Americans and wealthy families where being active in politics, either by making donations or actually running for public office — their view of giving back.

"Clearly there's a difference for the Romneys for whom public service has been an important part of a family identity and the same is true of the Bushes and Kennedys and so on and people like the Kochs who want to have their influence simply by changing their electoral outcomes and making sure their favored candidates are in office," Schlozman said.

Experts actually liken political giving and political involvement by the super rich as being like a status symbol.

"There are some political scientists who think that political spending by the rich should be basically understood as some sort of expressive consumption just like some people like buying fancy yachts," University of California at San Diego sociologist Isaac Martin, who specializes in fiscal and political sociology, told TPM. "Other people like buying access to political bigwigs. It can be a kind of status symbol."

The gray area applies to billionaires who aren't as frequently mentioned in the political world. Take the Walton family, who can claim ownership to the Walmart chain empire, Martin said.

"The Waltons, historically, have done a lot to advance small colleges in the South," Martin told TPM. "It was very much a project to educate young people in the '60s and 70s to what they called the free enterprise system. But of course it didn't look like political donations because it was donations to colleges."

Conversely, a common theory for why some of the wealthiest billionaires do get involved in politics is that a single issue or candidate is really the key motivator. Scholzman recalled casino mogul Sheldon Adelson's support for New Gingrich in 2008 as an example.

"And some of these very wealthy people, like Adelson, were betting on a particular horse," Scholzman said. "He put his chips on Newt Gingrich and it didn't go anywhere." On the flip side, Republicans eagerly criticize billionaire Tom Steyer for boosting Democrats and pressing his environmentalist agenda.


Environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

It's not uncommon, actually, for even partisan billionaires to donate to members of both parties. Take Carl Icahn, who, according to Littlesis.org, has given to both Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) with $43,950 and $10,000 respectively.

That may just be a sign the donors think the opposing party politician they're donating to won't be leaving anytime soon, according to the Sunlight Foundation's Lee Drutman.

"My guess is that almost all of the money you see that is to the opposite party would be to incumbents who are in pretty safe seats and can largely be explained by people wanting to have a good relationship with that incumbent member of Congress or House or Senate or whatever you see," the Sunlight Foundation's Lee Drutman said. A billionaire donating to the opposing party might become rarer and rarer as fewer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats remain in Congress, Scholzman said. That's something that could stop all but the most partisan billionaires from donating more.

"Well, partly you could be a moderate and the moderates are falling into the cracks in a day and age when Republicans agree with one another on almost everything and disagreeing with Democrats on almost everything," Scholzman said.

About The Author

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Daniel Strauss is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. He was previously a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper and has written for Politico, Roll Call, The American Prospect, and Gaper's Block. He has also interned at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and The New Yorker. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in History. At Michigan he helped edit Consider, a weekly opinion magazine. He can be reached at daniel@talkingpointsmemo.com.