Over the weekend, the New York Times published another piece in its series on who is financing the campaigns of this crop of presidential candidates.
The piece presented eye-popping new information: Just 158 families have provided nearly half of all the money donated to White House contenders so far.
But what the report didn’t mention was that the two families that have contributed the most to presidential campaigns also give prolifically to anti-choice groups and candidates. This is consistent with a little-noticed trend on which Rewire has been reporting for a while: the merging of political mega-donors with anti-choice activism. This fact is worth bearing in mind when listening to the anti-choice rhetoric being spouted by Republican presidential contenders.
At the top of the New York Times list is the Wilks family, the fracking barons who are cementing their place as arch-conservative mega-donors. According to the Times analysis, brothers Farris and Dan, and their spouses Jo Ann and Staci, have contributed a combined $15 million during this campaign so far in support of Ted Cruz’s campaign.
Their choice of candidate should come as little surprise, given Cruz’s longtime alliances with the fundamentalist Christian right. For example, Cruz is a regular attendee of the Values Voters Summit, an annual gala held in D.C. by the Family Research Council, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group for its virulent homophobia, among other things.
As Rewire has previously reported, the Wilkses are significant anti-choice donors, and have also plowed millions into a program that seeks to indoctrinate school children and university students with their right-wing views.
While the Times did mention the Wilkses’ anti-choice stance in a list of donors that accompanied the main piece, it’s worth noting the extent of those activities.
The Wilks family uses at least two foundations—the Thirteen Foundation and the Heavenly Father’s Foundation—to funnel donations to dozens of right-wing organizations, including crisis pregnancy centers, anti-choice advocacy groups, and religious organizations that oppose the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
Records for those foundations show that the Wilkses have pumped at least $33 million into right-wing causes since 2010. Some of that largesse has gone to causes and candidates that support fracking. Despite the conservative rallying cries of local control and states’ rights, the Wilkses have been major backers of laws that prohibit local communities from attempting to ban fracking.
Second on the Times list are Robert Mercer, a Wall Street hedge fund manager, and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer. Also Cruz fans, the Mercers are reported to have given $11.3 million in campaign contributions so far.
Mercer is emerging as a conservative presence within the more traditionally liberal enclaves of New York City. Between 2005 and 2013, his foundation, the Mercer Family Foundation, contributed nearly $40.1 million to mostly conservative causes, including some prominent anti-choice groups, federal tax records show. Some of his giving has gone to neutral groups or causes, such as the Mayo Clinic or supporting ovarian cancer research. However, he gave $10.5 million to the anti-choice, right-wing Media Research Center between 2008 and 2013, as well as a quarter of a million dollars to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that takes on high-profile conservative cases.
What’s particularly interesting about the New York Times list is what it suggests about how the deluge of campaign cash is affecting the Republican Party in the wake of Citizens United.
The 2012 contest saw an unprecedented amount of money flow to presidential candidates, mostly conservatives. But instead of allowing the monied interests to shore up the election for Republicans by outspending Democrats, what resulted was a prolonged period of public infighting and mutual denigration that left the Republican candidates diminished in the public’s eye.
As Ken Vogel has pointed out in his reporting for Politico, as well as in his book Big Money, the new ability for billionaires to pick pet candidates and keep their campaigns afloat, despite poor public support, has had the ironic effect of damaging the Republican Party’s ability to put forth a candidate who can win the general election.
The rise of anti-choice donors to the top of the donors list indicates that this trend could increase in 2016—precisely what Republican Party officials and former kingmakers had hoped to avoid in the aftermath of 2012. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, Karl Rove called for a mechanism for the party to weed out weak candidates earlier in the process; the GOP establishment, in its “autopsy report” on the election, substantially agreed.
Another reason to believe the problem has been exacerbated for Republicans this time around is the absence of certain family names from the list of 158 top donors, suggesting that some of the heaviest hitters may be waiting to see which candidates to back. (For instance, Paul E. Singer, Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess are missing—they were some of the most significant political donors to competing Republican candidates in 2012.)
Most notably, the Kochs are missing from the list. Their name has become synonymous with the post-Citizens United era of dizzying sprays of money spurting in the direction of multiple candidates at once. Of course, this could be due to the byzantine methods they employ to channel contributions through multiple foundations and other nonprofits, often making it difficult or impossible for the public to learn who has backed which particular candidate or cause. In the last cycle, Koch-related money flowed to a nonprofit called the Center to Protect Patient Rights, which acted as a pass-through entity for millions of dollars in funding to many of the nation’s foremost anti-choice organizations.
With the manufactured controversy over Planned Parenthood having dominated politics over the summer, there is good reason to believe that the confluence of campaign cash and anti-choice donors could continue to propel Republican candidates to take positions on many issues—especially reproductive rights—that are at odds with the majority of American voters.
Brie Shea contributed research to this report.