From left: William J. Doré, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and Harold Simmons Adelson photo, AP; all others, YouTube
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Thanks to a small number of wealthy individuals, the outside spending groups known as “super PACs” that are working to put the four leading GOP candidates in the White House collectively raised more than the candidates themselves in January.

Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul raised a combined $21.1 million for the month, according to Federal Election Commission records, while the four primary super PACs backing them raised $22.1 million.

Donors to candidates number in the thousands, but they may only give $2,500 per candidate, per election. Super PAC donors, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower-cour ruling, can give unlimited amounts. The funds can come from billionaires, corporations and labor unions. So far this election, the funds have been spent overwhelmingly on advertising disparaging competing candidates.

Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their activities with the candidates.

The average donation to a super PAC filing in January was $63,000, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of FEC data.

Two of the super PACs — “Winning Our Future,” supporting Newt Gingrich and “Endorse Liberty,” supporting Ron Paul — are dominated by a single donor.

Of the $11 million Winning Our Future raised in January, $10 million — about 90 percent of the total for the month — came from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife. That’s in addition to $1 million given by other Adelson family members to the PAC last year.

Of the $2.4 million raised by the pro-Ron Paul super PAC “Endorse Liberty,” $1.7 million — more than 70 percent — came from Peter Thiel, hedge fund manager, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor. That’s on top of the $900,000 he gave last year.

The “Red, White and Blue Fund,” which supports Santorum, is propped up by two big investors. Of the $2.1 million it raised in January, $1 million came from Louisiana energy company president William J. Doré and $669,000 came from retired mutual fund executive Foster Friess, making up about 80 percent of the total.

When the Citizens United decision was handed down, the fear was that corporations would dip into their treasuries to fund outside spending groups. Most of the corporate giving to super PACs in the presidential race has been from wealthy individuals or limited partnerships, not publicly traded corporations.

So much money coming from individuals raises questions from campaign finance watchdogs.

“The danger is, the candidate depends on a very small group of donors, and after (he or she) is elected, those donors are going to be on speed dial,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that promotes transparency in government.

Stories have shown that the White House is beholden to campaign “bundlers” who put together comparatively small sums for the candidate, he said.

“What’s going to happen when they’re beholden to donors who have given millions and come asking for favors?” Allison said.

In January, Gingrich’s campaign raised $5.6 million, about half the total of the super PAC. Paul’s campaign raised $4.5 million, more than Endorse Liberty’s $2.4 million. Santorum also raised $4.5 million, more than twice the amount of the super PAC.

Restore Our Future,” which supports Romney, raised $6.6 million, slightly more than the Romney campaign, which brought in $6.5 million. The PAC’s top donor is retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson of Tiger Management LLC, who gave $250,000 in January to go with the $1 million he gave last year.

Despite the Adelsons’ generosity, Restore Our Future still dwarfs the other outside spending groups. The super PAC has raised a total of $36.8 million, and at the end of January had $16.3 million in cash on hand. “Winning” has raised $13.1 million and had only $2.4 million in the bank.

Not all the top donations went to pro-candidate groups. Texas billionaire Harold C. Simmons, owner of Contran Corp., wrote a check to conservative super PAC American Crossroads for $5 million on Jan. 13. Contran is a holding company that deals in chemicals, metals and waste management, among other lines of business.

Simmons has emerged as the biggest donor to super PACs. With the latest $5 million contribution, Simmons and his companies have given $16.2 million, with $14 million going to American Crossroads, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the FEC.

Simmons himself has personally donated $10 million to American Crossroads since the group’s inception in 2010. Meanwhile, Contran Corp. has contributed an additional $2 million to the group, and two other of Simmons’ companies – Dixie Rice Agricultural Corp. and Southwest Louisiana Land, LLC – each contributed $1 million.

Additionally, Contran Corp. donated $1 million to “Make Us Great Again,” a super PAC that supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Simmons also cut a $100,000 personal check to another pro-Perry super PAC, “Americans for Rick Perry,” which later changed its name to the “Restoring Prosperity Fund.”

He’s further donated $1 million to the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, and $100,000 to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

This story has been updated.

Michael Beckel contributed to this story.

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John Dunbar worked for 15 years at the Center for Public Integrity, serving as its CEO from 2016 to 2018.