A version of this article appears on NBC News.
Several super PACs supporting President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election bid combined to raise significant cash during the first half of 2017.
“The members of the Committee to Defend the President are passionately committed to supporting the passage of the president’s America First Agenda and the call for his re-election,” said Ted Harvey, a former Colorado state senator who’s chairman of the pro-Trump group.
Harvey added that the super PAC provides Trump a shield against an “unprecedented onslaught of liberal intolerance and hate.”
But with the 2020 election more than 39 months away, what’s the hurry?
“The entire Democrat political machine is solely focused on blocking the President’s agenda and defeating him and other conservatives in the next two election cycles,” said Ed Rollins, lead strategist at Great America PAC. “Given this reality, it’s essential for us at Great America PAC to work twice as hard to help ensure the president’s short-term success and create a more favorable environment for his re-election campaign.”
By early May, these super PACs had together spent more than $1 million to support Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. They’ve since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more. By law, super PACs may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates.
Another pro-Trump super PAC active in 2017 is Rebuilding America Now, which reported income of $1.15 million during the first half of 2017 — almost all coming in the form of “media.” The PAC has largely spent its cash on food, travel, legal fees, and $35,000 a month to one of the group’s leaders, Laurance Gay, for “political strategy consulting.”
Meanwhile, Ronald Weiser, founder of architecture firm McKinley Associates, gave $200,000 in seed money to pro-Trump PAC America First Action, which formed in April. As for June 30, it had yet to spend any of it directly advocating for Trump.
Make America Number 1, the pro-Trump PAC largely backed by billionaire megadonor Robert Mercer during Election 2016, has raised less than $740 since Jan. 1, although it still had $873,000 in the bank as of June 30. The group blew through $134,000, or nearly 65 percent of its spending, on legal fees to law firm Greenberg Traurig.
Future45, another pro-Trump super PAC largely funded last year by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Linda McMahon, who Trump appointed to head the Small Business Administration, secured $105,000 from only two sources so far in 2017.
Nearly all the money this year, $102,500, came from super PAC Liberty 2.0, which was bankrolled by Murray Energy, Hobby Lobby and oil company Continental Resources during the 2016 election cycle. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s leadership PAC handed over $2,000.
Lower profile for Democratic super PACs
On the Democratic side, American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that largely supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and was founded by liberal political operative David Brock, raised $4.1 million during the first half of 2017. Its work this year has focused on anti-Trump and anti-Republican messaging, research and strategy.
Leading contributors include megadonor Barbara Stiefel ($200,000), billionaire philanthropist Pat Stryker ($150,000) and billionaire businessman George Soros ($80,000). (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)
Clinton’s main supportive super PAC, Priorities USA Action, brought in $1.7 million during the first half of 2017. But the bulk of the money was refunds from Election 2016 vendors. The group only brought in about $27,000 in bona fide contributions as its profile has shrunk. It’s primarily focused on polling, health care policy and voter suppression issues during 2017.
Trump himself kickstarted the 2020 presidential race when he filed re-election paperwork with the FEC on Jan. 20, the day of his inauguration.
In mid-July, Trump’s 2020 re-election committee reported raising nearly $8 million from April 1 to June 30 — an unprecedented amount so early in a presidential election cycle. Trump’s campaign entered July with almost $12 million in reserve.
Presidential candidates usually don’t begin actively raising campaign money until the year before an election.
Congress ‘up for grabs’?
Among U.S. Senate-focused super PACs, top Republican groups raised more than double the dollars of top Democratic groups.
At $8.2 million during the year’s first half, the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund outpaced liberal Senate Majority PAC, which brought in $4.6 million. Another pro-Republican super PAC, Senate Conservatives Action, raised $1.1 million of its own, half of which came from Richard Uihlein, founder of shipping supplies company Uline.
Conservative donors such as Home Depot cofounder Bernard Marcus ($2 million) and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen ($1 million) are the biggest Senate Leadership Fund donors so far in 2017. The Democratic Senate Majority PAC pulled $1 million each from Deborah Simon and Cynthia Simon-Skjodt, daughters of Melvin Simon, founder of the shopping mall company Simon Property Group.
Republicans cling to a 52-48 Senate majority over Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them. The Senate is expected to be the primary battleground in 2018, although Democrats also hope to make gains in the House.
Among U.S. House-focused super PACs, the Paul Ryan-backed Congressional Leadership Fund raised $13.1 million through July 10, while liberal House Majority PAC raised $3.2 million through the same period. The Republicans brought in checks from Western Refining Chairman Paul Foster ($1 million), billionaire Charles Johnson ($300,000) and investment banker Warren Stephens ($250,000). The Democrats won support from real estate mogul Charles Johnson ($500,000), hedge fund manager Donald Sussman ($250,000) and billionaire Tom Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate Action ($200,000).
Some of this fundraising fueled special election spending, most notably the historically expensive House contest in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, where Republican Karen Handel in June scored a comeback runoff victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff.
But Republican super PACs are also girding for a potentially grinding 2018 midterm election, in which Democrats hope to carve into the GOP’s 241-194 House majority.
The early fundraising activity “reflects the fact that both parties consider the control of Congress up for grabs in the upcoming election,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at reform group Public Citizen. “We’re just going to have a big fight coming up in 2018, and no one knows how it’s going to play out yet.”
Another big player in congressional elections, the politically active nonprofit One Nation, raised $8.7 million and has $7 million on hand, according to Politico. The group linked to political analyst Karl Rove is not required to disclose its donors.
A major liberal dark money group tied to Senate Majority PAC, Majority Forward, did not respond to a request for fundraising information.
Biden for president?
A handful of lesser-known super PAC players also secured large checks from some familiar names.
Dean Buntrock, founder of Waste Management, donated $250,000 to the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners Action Fund, which generally supports Republican congressional candidates.
Massachusetts First, a super PAC that’s attacking Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, found a friend in Renaissance Technologies’ Mercer, who donated $150,000.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden coaxed top Democratic megadonors such as LGBT activist Tim Gill, former Walt Disney Co. Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to give $5,000 each to his new PAC, American Possibilities. Biden’s committee raised almost $280,000 in the two months since he announced his project. More than one-third of American Possibilities’ donations came from contributions of $200 or less.
“It’s as if he’s already testing the waters to see if he can run for president,” Holman said.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by Barack Obama, raised $10.8 million through the end of July, according to the group. Obama personally conducted a fundraiser last month for the initiative, which seeks to “undo GOP gerrymandering.”
While its three arms — a PAC, a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit — brought in donations from more than 10,000 donors, big names writing six-figure checks stood out: Newsweb’s Fred Eychaner and Sussman gave $500,000 each, while director J.J. Abrams and his wife, actress Katie McGrath, gave $125,000 each.
Uihlein, the Republican megadonor, also shelled out $2 million to Solutions for Wisconsin, filling the super PAC’s entire coffers the first six months of 2017. The group endorsed U.S. Marine Kevin Nicholson to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., in 2018.
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