These Billionaire Philanthropists Also Spent Big to Influence This Year's Mid-Term Election

Beto O’Rourke. Photo: michelmond/shutterstock

Beto O’Rourke. Photo: michelmond/shutterstock

Donald Trump may be a billionaire, but no recent American president has inspired fiercer opposition within the far, far upper class. Top Republican donors did everything they could to stop Trump’s initial rise, and since his election, Democratic donors have given a torrent of philanthropic and political cash to thwart him.

Partly as a result of that giving, this year’s midterm election is shaping up to be the most expensive “ever by a wide margin,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center projects that $5.2 billion will be spent in the 2018 election cycle, an eye-popping sum for a mid-term. That total also includes plenty of money from Republican mega-donors, who came around to Trump when he began to deliver on the issues they care about most. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have given $113 million so far, twice as much as any other donor in this election and cycle.

But many of this year’s biggest givers are Democrats, including some of the nation’s top philanthropists. I’ll get into the details in a moment, after a word about the larger picture here.

A Divided Upper Class

When you think of class warfare, the image of billionaires battling each other is not usually what springs to mind. But intra-class ideological warfare has greatly intensified in recent years, as part of a broader pattern of rising political polarization.

You can see this in the growing flows of funding to policy and advocacy groups on both the left and right from ultra-wealthy philanthropists—a trend that’s hardly new, but which greatly accelerated during the Bush years when a cadre of wealthy donors mobilized to take on that administration. These givers not only gave at record levels during the 2004 election, they also financed new progressive groups like the Democracy Alliance, the Center for American Progress, and Media Matters. Many have kept giving, joined by other newly wealthy progressives who’ve arrived on the scene in recent years, like Tom Steyer and Craig Newmark. Liberal organizations and Democratic politicians are better financed today than ever before, thanks to an influx of resources.

While Anand Giridharadas’s recent book, Winners Take All, paints a monochromatic picture of upper class ideology, anyone who closely follows influence spending knows that there are growing political cleavages among the wealthy. The Marxian assumption of a united capitalist class that Giridharadas channels has become increasingly dated. In particular, as I explained in my 2010 book Fortunes of Change, thanks to several trends, there are now many more ultra-wealthy progressives.

First, a growing slice of today’s biggest winners have gotten rich in a knowledge economy by parlaying their advanced degrees and intellectual firepower into business success. These folks have often spent their lives in deep blue America, growing up in coastal areas, attending elite universities, and working in cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle. They may indeed have some of the same rapacious tendencies as capitalists of any era, but they’re more likely to be liberal on social issues and the environment, as well as to support effective government and worry about rising inequality. They also believe in reason and facts, and many are deeply disturbed by Trumpism.

The leftward shift of the far upper class is also driven by a proliferation of heirs who are coming to control ever larger fortunes amid the greatest intergenerational wealth transfer in history. Many of them have never set foot in the business world, and ideologically, they often exemplify what I call “Rockefeller syndrome”—namely, that the descendants of hard-edged capitalists become increasingly liberal over time, the further you get away from the original wealth creator. A number of the top Democratic donors in this year’s election cycle are heirs, including Alexander Soros, Liz Simons and Nicholas Pritzker. The billionaire Stryker heirs, Jon and Patricia, are on the list, too, as are Anne Earhart and Henry Van Ameringen. All these heirs are also active philanthropists who back progressive groups.

A final reason for the expanding ranks of progressive donors is simply that America’s wealthy class has dramatically grown overall in recent decades. While the first Forbes 400 list in 1982 included just 13 billionaires, there are now nearly 700 billionaires in the U.S. Meanwhile, some 75,000 U.S. households have investable assets of at least $30 million. Within this far larger pool of rich people, it’s not surprising you’ll find more progressives and Democrats.

And it’s not surprising that anyone on the left with any wealth at all feels compelled to give at this moment.

Big Philanthropists, Big Political Donors

If you have a lot of money and want to influence public policy, there are a few key levers of power to work: you’ll make tax-deductible “charitable” gifts to policy and advocacy groups; you’ll give to 501(c)(4) outfits that engage in electoral activity; and you’ll give directly to candidates and party committees. Maybe you’ll buy a newspaper or magazine, too.

The amounts today’s savvy influence spenders give through all channels keep growing. The most recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics on top mega-donors in this election cycle underscores just how much money is flowing on the electoral side of the fence.

Keep in mind as I run through some names that the final tallies of their giving are likely to be higher in many cases when all financial reporting is in. Keep in mind also that record sums of dark money are flowing in this election cycle that can’t be traced back to specific donors.

Third on the list of top mega-donors, after Sheldon Adelson and Tom Steyer, are Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who have recently emerged as top conservative donors, and who gave at least $39 million to Republicans this cycle. As we’ve reported, the Uihleins have also lately ramped up support of a host of leading policy and advocacy groups on the right, joining the cadre of conservative philanthropists who’ve steadily bankrolled such organizations for decades.

Michael Bloomberg is fourth on the list, with $38 million in spending for Democrats—of what could be $100 million when all the reporting is in. Bloomberg is a leading example of an ambidextrous mega-donor who pumps vast amounts of cash through philanthropic, c4, and traditional political channels.

Jim and Marilyn Simons are sixth on the list, with $19 million in spending for Democrats. The couple’s philanthropy is primarily focused on basic science through their foundation. But they’re longtime Democratic mega-donors, and Jim’s children all have foundations that support progressive causes. Liz Simons and her husband Mark Heising can be found further down the list, with $4.5 million in giving to Democrats. The couple also run a growing foundation that we’ve written about often.

George Soros is a staple of these lists, and, sure enough, clocks in at No. 7 in this election cycle, with $17 million in giving for Democrats. His son Alexander is also here, as I mentioned earlier, with nearly $3 million in giving. Alex has lately emerged as a thoughtful philanthropist in his own right and is the Soros heir to watch these days.

Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who played a key role in Trump’s election, remain engaged as major donors, with $6 million in giving for Republicans. The Mercers are also textbook examples of multi-track influence spenders. Their foundation gives out millions of dollars to conservative policy groups and they’ve also invested big in Breitbart.

Paypal and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman is a less familiar name on this list, at least as a political donor. Like other techies, Hoffman has been appalled by Trump and has engaged in growing giving of all kinds. He’s become a much more active philanthropist, including for civic engagement. And, as of this election cycle, he is officially a heavyweight Democratic mega-donor, with $8.7 million in giving.

Meanwhile, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna have given $6.3 million for Democrats. That’s significant, because when the couple gave some $30 million in 2016, it wasn’t clear whether that move was a one-off donation motivated by stopping Trump or if political giving would be an ongoing part of their influence agenda. Of course, this couple is well-known to IP readers as among the most interesting of the new philanthropists who’ve lately emerged from Silicon Valley. Now it’s safe to say that Democratic pols everywhere are also interested in them.

There are many other prominent philanthropists on the top donors list, which is worth a close look for anyone interested in how money flows in politics and beyond.

But I want to close with a final word about Seth and Beth Klarman, who famously flipped their political allegiance in this election cycle—shifting money from a GOP dominated by Trump to the Democratic opposition.

While plenty of other Republicans finance leaders like Kenneth Griffin and Stephen Schwarzman have stuck with the GOP, Seth Klarman’s change of heart may be a sign of things to come within the far upper class. This group has become less Republican over time, for all the reasons mentioned earlier, and Trumpism seems likely to greatly accelerate that shift—assuming his strain of conservative nationalism remains ascendant within the party.

That could mean even more money flowing to Democrats and progressive organizations in coming years.