Hotshot political consultant Matt Machowiak is a rising star in the very lucrative world of political consulting. His firm, the Potomac Strategy Group, helps Republicans win elections, but he's not working with Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign this election year.
People who are part of Machowiak's tribe — the strategists, the opposition researchers, the pollsters — are discovering that they can have a much bigger impact working for outside groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money, unencumbered by the rules that restrict what a presidential campaign can do.
These political money men are already changing the way elections are won and lost.
"That's one of the interesting things about this," Machowiak says. "These outside groups are playing an outsized role on the campaign right now. Campaigns and candidates themselves have less control over the narrative, less control over the media, less control over the story — and you now have this finance system that's unlike any we've ever seen."
The Supreme Court's 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows outside groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for a particular issue or even candidate.
Now strategists and donors are going where the money's going, and growing evidence suggests that this election year — not just on the presidential level, but also for congressional races — will be dominated by superPACs.
Right now, more than 80 percent of the money raised by superPACs has gone to pro-GOP groups. And, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, 80 percent of all the money raised by these groups has come from just 100 individuals — the wealthiest people in America. People like Texas billionaire Harold Simmons.
A Billionaire Businessman
Simmons is believed to be the single largest donor to Karl Rove's superPAC, Crossroads GPS. He's probably best known for being one of several large donors to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that dogged Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.
I think Barack Obama is a smart man that the electorate put into power without any qualifications to run the biggest business in the world, which is the United States of America.
- Julian Robertson, billionaire donor
Several donors from that group and other Karl Rove projects are back this election year, too, says Charles Homans, who wrote a piece about Simmons for The New Republic. "If you look at the top of the list, it's got most of the Swift Boat veteran donors on it. And Harold Simmons is one of them."
Simmons is also a philanthropist, giving money to a performing arts center in Dallas and area hospitals, as well as Republican candidates. Homans tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that it's hard to say what motivates the billionaire; he doesn't give many interviews.
"If you look at his record you can make a pretty strong case that he's not a terribly ideological guy. He has sort of business-minded, kind of old-school conservative sensibilities, but in some respects, he's fairly socially liberal," Homans says.
As a businessman, however, he's constantly rubbing up against government regulations.
"He learned fairly early on that it was important to have a say in the political process if his businesses were going to run the way he wanted to run them," Homans says.
Homans estimates Simmons has donated around $18 million to $19 million to Crossroads GPS. "It's sort of dicey to put a dollar figure on a lot of these big donors right now, because a huge amount of the money that's flowing into this race is going into these organizations that don't actually need to account for where the money's coming from," he says.
'This Way, I Can Give More Money'
Simmons wouldn't comment for this story, but we found another billionaire who would. Julian Robertson is No. 16 on the list of the top individual donors in the U.S. this election year, giving $1.25 million to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney superPAC.
"I'm a little bit in the time of life when one thinks about giving away money," he says, "and I can't think of a more worthy cause than to try to get this country into the hands of the best possible man that can run it. I think Barack Obama is a smart man that the electorate put into power without any qualifications to run the biggest business in the world, which is the United States of America."
He's not allowed to give as much as he'd like to Romney's campaign itself, so he gives to outside groups instead. "This way, I can give more money," he says. The volume of private money being poured into the election does bother him some, though.
"I think part of it bothers us all," he says. "Look, all I see is that here is a chance for me to affect a leadership change that is sorely needed in America, and I'm just taking advantage of that particular thing."
The Most Expensive Election In U.S. History
Try to guess how many superPACs are operating in the U.S. today. Dave Levinthal, who covers money and politics for Politico, says there are about 450 — at the moment.
"The number is growing by the day," he tells Raz. "It's something where people have really become very aware of the fact that, No. 1, they exist, and frankly, that it's not all that hard to form one."
And how much money have Simmons, Robertson and other donors spent so far in this election cycle? More than $100 million, Levinthal says. "And if you check back with me tomorrow, that number will probably have gone up in the interim." Without question, he says, this is the most expensive federal election in U.S. history.
While both parties are pouring outside money into the race, the Republicans are outspending Democrats by about 10 to 1, Levinthal adds. "Republicans have been much quicker to the punch, to embrace the new rules and regulations that now exist in the United States," he says.
That spending has already made its influence felt. Take Iowa, Levinthal says, where pro-Romney superPACs blistered the airwaves to tear down rival Newt Gingrich. "The whole complexion of the Iowa caucuses — and then New Hampshire and South Carolina and the various other states — it changed significantly."