Wong Maye-E / AP
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 | 2:56 p.m.
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Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is planning to direct $20 million to an outside group backing Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, multiple sources told POLITICO — the first answer to urgent pleas from allies to the former speaker’s longtime billionaire supporters.
After leaving Congress, Gingrich cultivated a network of a few dozen über-wealthy backers who poured tens of millions of dollars into a network of groups that helped him maintain a foothold in politics. Now, operatives supporting his presidential campaign are asking those same donors to write fat checks to a suite of new super PACs they hope can spend big on ads to offset Gingrich campaign fundraising that had lagged behind his rivals’.
Adelson is considered the prized get for pro-Gingrich groups.
Adelson spokesman Ron Reese denied the $20 million commitment, saying “there’s no truth to any speculation that Mr. Adelson has made a commitment to either contribute or raise this amount of money.”
Reese declined to comment on potential future political giving by Adelson on behalf of Gingrich or in general, saying Adelson doesn’t talk about his political activities. Many major donors prefer to keep their activity low-profile, though federal rules require super PACs to disclose their donors in the coming weeks.
Sources with direct knowledge of the $20 million figure, who requested anonymity, told POLITICO that Adelson planned to cut a check to one of the PACs as soon as this week.
A major contribution from Adelson would enable the recipient group to start airing ads in Iowa to counter a weeklong anti-Gingrich on-air assault that is already taking a toll on his front-runner status in the Hawkeye State, according to private and public polling.
Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson each contributed the $2,500 maximum to Gingrich’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in August. But there weren’t many options for them and other wealthy donors looking to give more to help Gingrich through the summer, when his campaign was on life support.
That changed as Gingrich’s campaign started surging last month, prompting his allies to create new outside groups known as super PACs that can accept unlimited funds to air ads supporting him.
Perhaps the leading player in the pro-Gingrich super PAC space, Winning Our Future, was unveiled this week and is being headed by Becky Burkett, who was the lead fundraiser for Gingrich’s main political vehicle over the past few years, the fundraising juggernaut American Solutions for Winning the Future.
That group raised $54 million — including $7.7 million from Adelson — between its late 2006 creation and its collapse this year after Gingrich left it to run for president, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
On Tuesday, Burkett declined to detail her relationship with Adelson, telling POLITICO, “I certainly know him through American Solutions,” but added, “I have not spoken to him” about Winning Our Future.
Charlie Smith, who runs another new pro-Gingrich super PAC called Solutions 2012, said the group’s fundraiser, Jerry Seppala, “does have a relationship with Sheldon,” but stressed he “won’t comment on our contacts with any specific donor or whether anyone particular person has given.”
And Craig Bachler, an official at a third super PAC called Spirit of America Solutions that is generally supportive of — but does not intend to endorse — Gingrich, also declined to discuss Adelson specifically. But he did add suggestively that his group got “a major commitment out of Nevada that the individual is big into donating money to Newt and I think is sharing the wealth with not just one PAC.”
While Burkett’s group is expected to emerge as the biggest pro-Gingrich super PAC, it’s unclear to which super PAC Adelson made the $20 million planned commitment, or how much money he intended to give directly versus raise through his network.
But a former official at one of Gingrich’s groups who is not involved in the presidential campaign or super PACs said that if Adelson “does end up giving big, he could really make a significant impact on this election.”
The focus on Adelson underscores the increasing influence of megadonors in the new campaign finance environment as well as the promise and challenges in quickly mounting a robust outside effort to support Gingrich.
A competition between the pro-Gingrich groups for cash and attention could confuse donors and dilute the potential impact of each, and leave them at a disadvantage to the outside efforts boosting Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, which quickly coalesced around single, preferred super PACs.
“We’re really in hyper speed now with these super PACs where, in a universe of unlimited contributions, you can get seed money and be up and running with ads in a few days, particularly if a candidate gets hot like Newt Gingrich is now,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman. But there’s also “great potential for donor confusion, because [of] the sheer volume of these super PACs with names that are kind of similar,” warned Toner, who credited allies of Romney, Perry and President Barack Obama with quickly rallying behind a single respective super PAC for each candidate.
“And that’s not easy to do” because of rules barring campaigns from coordinating with super PACs, said Toner, who represented former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s bid for the GOP nomination, which ended amid paltry fundraising and poll numbers. “A super PAC is probably more valuable to someone like Newt Gingrich because he doesn’t have the organizational and financial resources of some of the other top-tier candidates.”
Yet many of Gingrich’s wealthy patrons aligned themselves with his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination when his campaign struggled earlier this year.
A POLITICO analysis of FEC and IRS filings found that of the 16 donors who contributed $100,000 or more to American Solutions and also gave to a 2012 GOP presidential campaign or campaigns, only six gave to Gingrich, including Adelson.
To be sure, the analysis only covers presidential campaign donations through the end of September, weeks before Gingrich’s campaign began the unlikely surge that has landed him at the top of the polls.
But his main rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, and the super PAC supporting him, Restore Our Future, also have been working to win support from megadonors and have secured backing from some who had given big to American Solutions for Winning the Future.
For instance, real estate magnate Harlan Crow, whose company had given $100,000 to Gingrich’s group, this month threw a major fundraiser at his Dallas mansion for Romney.
Crow, who had been a longtime donor to Texas Gov. Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns and had given to the presidential campaigns of former Govs. Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman of Utah, told The Wall Street Journal that “many folks who supported [Perry’s presidential campaign] are now reconsidering.”
There also are a handful of megadonors who cut big checks to American Solutions but have limited their disclosed presidential contributions to Romney’s campaign, including the recently deceased Cincinnati billionaire Carl Lindner Jr., who along with his widow Edyth Lindner had donated $690,000 to the Gingrich group.
Other major Newt World donors who have either given to, or signaled support for, Romney include personal investing billionaire Charles Schwab (who gave $200,000 to American Solutions), produce wholesaler Robert Castellini ($170,000), Johnson & Johnson heir Robert Wood Johnson IV ($75,000), New York finance titan John Whitehead ($30,000), Florida mall developer Mel Sembler ($30,000) and Home Depot investor Ken Langone ($25,000).
Perry, too, has made some headway with major Gingrich donors, getting contributions from the executives of Oklahoma’s Devon Energy (which had given $625,000 to American Solutions) and Houston’s Plains Exploration & Production Company ($200,000).
Of course, it’s difficult to gauge which donors will write big checks to super PACs. So far, only one major presidential super PAC has disclosed donations — the pro-Romney Restore Our Future, which raised $12.2 million in the first half of the year entirely from 90 high-dollar contributors.
The major pro-Perry super PAC, Make Us Great Again, had set a $55 million budget but initially looked like it might have to fight for big donor cash with at least five other pro-Perry super PACs.
The groups swiped at one another as Perry prepared to enter the race, but Make Us Great Again asserted its place as the dominant outside group in an August email from its founders, including a close Perry confidant named Mike Toomey.
“Many other groups are coming forward to draft and support the governor,” wrote Toomey and his co-founders. “Our advice is to avoid any other group claiming to be ‘the’ pro-Perry independent effort and, when the timing is right, to support Make Us Great Again.”
There won’t be any official signal like that from Newt World, predicted the former official from a Gingrich group, as well as the ex-Gingrich aide. In separate interviews, each said they expected a competition between the various groups, but gave an edge to Winning Our Future, thanks to Burkett’s ties to major donors to American Solutions for Winning the Future.
“I don’t think there will be a group that is ‘crowned’ to be the ‘official’ group. That will come with whichever group can prove their ability to fundraise and be successful,” said the ex-aide, asserting “there is plenty of money to be raised for everyone.”
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.