CEDAR RAPIDS – Eleven Iowans gave a combined total of more than $1 million to candidates for federal office, political parties and political action committees in the 2012 election cycle, according to a new report on elite political donors.
Seven of those political heavyweights gave 100 percent of their donations to Republicans while two gave 100 percent of their contributions to Democrats, according to the report from the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit advocating for campaign finance reform it says is necessary to bring about greater government openness and transparency.
At the top of the list is Alden businessman and president of the state Board of Regents Bruce Rastetter, who gave $118,300. Not far behind was Thomas Moreland, CEO of St. Jude Healthcare, who gave $117,500, according to the report released today.
Overall, in the 2012 election cycle, 160 Iowans gave $4,671,897 to federal candidates, parties and PACs, according to Sunlight. The minimum donation to be part of what Sunlight called the “1 percent of the 1 percent” was $12,950.
Adam Mason is not surprised by the numbers. The state policy organizing director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said it’s the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that allows unions and corporations to spend unlimited amounts on ads calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.
“As the 1 percent donors continue to give more and more it silences everyday Iowans who participate in the political process by voting or giving small contributions,” Mason said. “Those have little or no meaning any more in light of these huge contributions.”
Tim Hagle, a University Iowa associate professor of political science, thinks Sunlight may be overstating the threat.
“The implication is these people are buying elections,” Hagle said. However, few congressional campaigns are competitive. “So it’s not so much ‘Oh, my god, we can’t believe this is happening.’ It’s more like they are giving money to people who are going to win anyway.”
The numbers are meant to alarm voters that the wealthy have an undue influence on the electoral process, said Drake University political scientist Arthur Sanders. However, he questioned Sunlight’s methodology and conclusions.
In the case of the 2012 matchup of incumbent U.S. Reps. Tom Latham and Leonard Boswell, he said, large amounts of money were received and spent by both campaigns.
“It is not clear one could attribute the result to the money,” Sanders said.
Likewise, he continued, if Republicans pour money into beating U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley or Democrats spend heavily to defeat Rep. Steve King “it is not clear that one could conclude that the wealthy are ‘controlling’ Iowa elections.”
“There is simply not enough information in this data to know whether this money made for more or less competitive elections,” he said.
Regardless, Mason argued, large donors have an advantage because of their money.
“These 160 people are on the list for private fundraisers, they can fly to Washington and meet with their congressman,” he said. “But we can take 20 people to Washington and we’re lucky to get a meeting with a staffer after trying to set it up for two weeks.”
Money and politics sometimes “end up in a corrupt mix,” Hagle said, “but the bottom line is the 1st amendment. The Supreme Court has said that campaign donations are a form of free speech.”
That’s not to say there can be no restrictions on campaign spending, he said.
Mason advocates Connecticut’s approach – matching small contributions with public funds to offset the advantage of large donors.
Sunlight’s “1 percent of the 1 percent” includes 31,385 people representing just .01 percent of the U.S. population. In the 2012 election, 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from that group and reached the campaign coffers of every winning congressional seat last year. In fact, 84 percent of House and Senate campaigns took more money from this donor group than from all small (under $200) donations received.
According to the report, slightly more than half of the $118,300 donated by Rastetter, CEO of Hawkeye Renewable Energy, went to the Republican Party, another 27 percent went to political action committees and the remaining 19 percent going to candidates.
Sixty-six percent of Moreland’s $117,500 went to the party, 18 percent to candidates and 16 percent to PACs.
Fred Weitz of Des Moines, president of Essex Meadows, an operator of retirement communities and owner of commercial real estate, rounded out the top 11 with $73,950 to Democratic candidates and groups.
Fred Hubbell, a member of the ING U.S. board of directors and retired president and CEO of Equitable Life Insurance Company, was the only other member of the elite group of Iowans to give all of his contributions to Democrats. He gave $87,900.
To read the report, click here
To see the Iowa-specific data, download: http://bulk.sunlightfoundation.com/1of1/onepct_IA.csv.