Exclusive: Mega-donors plan GOP war council
By: Alexander Burns and Kenneth P. Vogel
February 18, 2014 05:02 AM EST
A group of major GOP donors, led by New York billionaire Paul Singer, is quietly expanding its political footprint ahead of the midterm elections in an increasingly assertive effort to shape the direction of the Republican Party.
The operation was launched discreetly last year, with the previously unreported formation of a club called the American Opportunity Alliance to bring together some of the richest pro-business GOP donors in the country, several of whom share Singer’s support for gay rights, immigration reform and the state of Israel. Around the same time, Singer and his allies also formed a federal fundraising committee called Friends for an American Majority that raised big checks for a select list of the GOP’s most highly touted 2014 Senate hopefuls.
Those candidates are among the big names expected at a two-day retreat organized by the American Opportunity Alliance set for the last week of February at a swanky Colorado resort. The closed-door event — which is also expected to draw House Speaker John Boehner and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, according to Republicans familiar with the plans — is seen in GOP finance circles as a grand debut of sorts for Singer’s still-amorphous club.
On its face, it in some ways resembles a much smaller-scale version of Charles and David Koch’s fabled network, which brings together hand-picked operatives and politicians twice a year at tony resorts to make presentations to dozens of rich conservatives. At the conclusion of the Koch seminars, as they’re called, donors commit massive sums into a pool of cash disseminated to various Koch-backed groups for seven- and eight-figure advertising and organizing campaigns that have made them a force in Republican politics rivaling the official party.
That doesn’t appear to be the goal of Singer and his donors. While many of them — including Singer himself — have attended the Koch seminars and also maintain their own independent spending groups, their approach with the American Opportunity Alliance is more donor-centric, focusing on comparing notes about one another’s political projects and funneling limited hard-money contributions effectively.
Still, the list of big-name pols expected at the American Opportunity Alliance’s upcoming Colorado gathering highlights the influence that only a few big donors can command in the post-Citizens United era, when a small group of wealthy individuals can reorder elections with just a few huge checks. That new reality has shifted some of the power and control once maintained by the parties and their candidates to factions of major donors, like the libertarian-infused Koch network on the right or the Democracy Alliance club of major liberal donors on the left.
The ideological and tactical contours of Singer’s plans remain somewhat unclear, as does the membership of the American Opportunity Alliance, which is registered as a for-profit corporation in Delaware. If nothing else, though, the group appears to represent a new center of gravity in the world of GOP money, anchored by a famously prolific Republican bundler with a distinct ideological agenda.
Singer, who founded the hedge fund Elliott Management, has long been a key player in GOP money circles, espousing a nontraditional brand of conservatism that includes aggressive backing for gay marriage and immigration reform, as well as more traditional GOP stances like lower taxes and less government regulation. Contributors to the joint fundraising account for Senate candidates — a list that likely dovetails at least partially with the American Opportunity Alliance’s member rolls — include a mix of gay marriage supporters like Todd Ricketts and billionaire investor Cliff Asness, as well as more conventional fiscal conservatives like brokerage titan Charles Schwab and real estate developer Harlan Crow.
The Colorado summit appears to be the first organized under the American Opportunity Alliance banner, but it comes after a series of other political gatherings organized by Singer and his cohort that paved the way for it. At the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Singer put together an economics panel featuring at least one congressman, plus he teamed with fellow hedge funder Dan Loeb — another prominent gay rights supporter — to host a dinner at the Hyatt Regency headlined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Sources say the genesis for the American Opportunity Alliance can be traced to a late September meeting in New York City. That gathering, which drew roughly 20 major donors whose views spanned the GOP political spectrum, was organized by Singer, Ricketts and energy executive Joe Craft.
They were among dozens of donors who forked over checks for a December fundraiser in New York for Friends for an American Majority. Its beneficiaries were three highly competitive Republican Senate candidates: Reps. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Steve Daines of Montana, as well as Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, the former head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
The joint committee routed nearly $530,000 to those three candidates combined last year, according to recently filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The contributions came from many of the top names in the Republican donor community. In addition to Ricketts, Asness, Schwab and Crow, donors included Craft, hedge fund managers John Paulson and Ken Griffin, and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Along with his son Todd, who has worked with Singer on gay rights issues, Joe Ricketts leads a deep-pocketed political outfit — a linked nonprofit and super PAC both called Ending Spending — that is focused on fiscal issues.
Also listed as contributors on Friends for an American Majority’s FEC report are Dan Senor, the former adviser to Mitt Romney who is now a counselor to Singer, and two-time Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon and her husband, Vince McMahon, the co-founders of pro wrestling behemoth WWE.
The three Senate candidates who have already benefited from their largesse are expected to join the gathering in Colorado, along with a fourth Senate contender set to receive the group’s seal of approval: North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, the establishment-favored challenger to first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
The Senate hopefuls are slated to participate in a discussion moderated by Ayotte, according to a Republican source.
Singer, whose representatives declined to comment for this story, has long been a major donor. But in recent years, he has steadily increased his political influence beyond traditional check-writing and bundling.
Since 2010, Singer has donated nearly $10 million to gay rights groups, including $1.8 million to a super PAC he started called American Unity to back Republicans who support gay marriage. He has been supportive of the Club for Growth, the hard-right organization of economic conservatives, giving the group more than $850,000 over the years, including a $100,000 check last cycle. Despite his divergence with many in the GOP base on gay rights and immigration, Singer has been a good GOP soldier, giving $1 million to the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future in 2012, and $7.5 million to various Republican Party committees over the years.
Since the 2012 election, Singer has stepped up his advocacy for an overhauled GOP agenda. He donated to an immigration reform group, the National Immigration Forum; and last month, Singer and Loeb organized events, including one with the Human Rights Campaign, at the World Economic Forum in Davos focused on LGBT issues.
In a 2012 interview with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Singer called backing pro-gay rights Republicans part of a larger effort to open up the party.
“The Republican Party can be more of a big tent and this issue is part of that,” he said at the time.
The Senate candidates headed for Colorado have not necessarily signed on to Singer’s broad agenda — Cotton has been an outspoken opponent of immigration reform in the House, for example, and Tillis backed a state ban on gay marriage in North Carolina.
But both Cotton and Ayotte have rapidly distinguished themselves as national security conservatives in the same vein as Singer, even as the GOP as a whole has begun to shift in a more libertarian and less interventionist direction on defense issues.