The Top 10 Billionaire Political Donors of 2019 (So Far)
Disregard president Donald Trump’s campaign promises to “drain the swamp”: Washington, D.C., and the national electoral system is awash in special interest money. In the nation’s capital, much of that money comes from lobbyists who see an administration that is not only heavily populated with lobbyists, but also receptive to their advances. It’s ironic: While there was a dramatic decline in the number of registered lobbyists during the Obama years, thanks in part to the elimination of earmarking from bills, their numbers have recovered since 2016, topping 11,000 at the end of the second quarter of 2019, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. President Trump has hired seven former lobbyists to serve as members of his cabinet, more than the total hired by Obama and George W. Bush combined.
Of course, the full impact of lobbyists has to include the dollars spent by corporations and groups ranging from Boeing, Facebook and Amazon to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association. These companies and organizations pour millions of dollars into Washington—money that is becoming harder and harder to track. Increasingly, organizations that want to buy influence in D.C. are investing in “shadow lobbyists,” people who may not fit the legal definition of a lobbyist but essentially serve the same function. They could be people who either deregister as lobbyists but keep positions at their firms or former members of Congress who bill themselves as “strategic advisors.”
“The law only requires very specific kinds of activity before the Congress to be reported,” Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey M. Berry told the Center for Responsive Politics. “The reasons why people don’t register are they prefer not to have their names reported, or they just feel it’s not required by the law.”
But influence-buying through lobbying is only one side of the coin. On the electoral side, there are more rigorous rules governing the disclosure of political expenditures, and because of them we can identify the biggest individual spenders in the lead-up to the 2020 general election. These wealthy individuals influence who gets on ballots, which issues those candidates support and which issues voters care about. Here are the 10 biggest political spenders of 2019 (as of August, the most recent period for which data is available), ranked in order of their combined hard and soft money donations.
BIO: George Marcus was born George Moutsanas in 1941 on Euboea, Greece’s second largest island and the purported location where Agamemnon’s fleet was becalmed in antiquity. The Moutsanas family left after the end of World War II and emigrated to the United States in 1945, changing the family name to Marcus. George earned a BA in economics from San Francisco State in 1965 and went on to become cofounder and chairman of real estate firm Marcus and Millichap, an enterprise that eventually made him a billionaire.
POLITICS: Marcus and his wife Judith support Democratic causes and candidates and give heavily to organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and left-leaning “super PACs,” political action committees that are not allowed to contribute to candidates or coordinate their work with them. In June, the couple gave $1 million to both the House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, organizations focused on building and maintaining Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. In 2019, Marcus has donated to presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign and to Nancy Pelosi, among others. In the past, Marcus has supported California governor Gavin Newsom and backed anti-gun initiatives.
BIO: Mathematician Henry Laufer was born in 1945 and studied mathematics at City College in New York before earning a master’s and a PhD from Princeton. He spent the first years of his career in academia, first at MIT and Princeton, then joining the faculty at SUNY Stony Brook in 1971. Laufer crossed over into the world of finance in 1992 to become chief scientist and vice president of research at quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, where he worked closely with founder Jim Simons and co-CEO Robert Mercer. All three became billionaires and major political donors, with Laufer and Simons giving heavily to Democratic causes, and Mercer backing conservative political candidates such Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and political movements including a return to the gold standard and Brexit. Marsha Laufer earned a PhD in speech pathology from Northwestern, conducted research at Purdue and then joined the faculty at SUNY Stony Brook.
POLITICS: A supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2016, Laufer has this year backed former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who entered the 2020 Democratic primary but dropped out in August to run for U.S. Senate. Laufer has also given to Nancy Pelosi, various Democratic campaign committees and congresswoman and former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Marsha Laufer gave more than $1 million to two super PACs, American Bridge 21st Century—which was founded by Democratic operative David Brock and supports Media Matters for America, a key opposition research hub—and Priorities USA Action, which was originally founded to support Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race.
BIO: Karla Jurvetson was born Karla Tinklenberg in New Haven, Conn. Her family moved to Palo Alto, Calif., where Karla experienced the rise of Silicon Valley firsthand. She earned a bachelor’s in biology at Stanford and an MD in psychiatry at the University of California; she completed her residency at Stanford in 1997, and still practices medicine in Los Altos, Calif. In 1990 she married Steve Jurvetson, who would become one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capitalists, with early stage investments in companies including Hotmail, Twitter and Tesla. Following allegations of sexual misconduct involving female entrepreneurs, Steve resigned from his firm, Draper Fischer Jurvetson, in 2017. (He has denied the allegations.) Karla filed for divorce in 2016.
POLITICS: Although Jurvetson has long been politically active, she’s become a leading female donor since the election of Donald Trump, and she’s taken a particular interest in women’s causes and female candidates. Karla Jurvetson has also backed candidates including Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and state Democratic parties around the country, as well as super PACs such as the Ditch Fund, which bills itself as “Ditch Mitch” and aims to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, and Fair Fight, the fair election organization founded by Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Georgia. Perhaps her most consequential move as a political donor came in February when, according to BuzzFeed News, she wrote two checks to the DNC to obtain access to the party’s voter database on behalf of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, despite the candidate’s pledge to eschew donations from big donors.
BIO: A native of Teaneck, N.J., Singer was born in 1944, the son of a Jewish pharmacist and a homemaker. He studied psychology at the University of Rochester and earned a JD from Harvard in 1969. He started his career as a real estate attorney but soon moved into finance and founded Elliott Management in 1977. The hedge fund would make him a billionaire as he specialized in distressed debt acquisitions, with big plays on sovereign debt in Peru and Argentina.
POLITICS: Singer is politically complicated. Despite being a Republican, he became a serious backer of LGBT causes—his son Andrew is gay and married his husband in Massachusetts in 2009—and pushed for marriage equality. A Romney supporter in 2012, he also helps fund conservative D.C. news outlet the Washington Free Beacon—the original sponsor of the now-infamous “Trump dossier”—and opposes increasing taxes on the wealthy and stricter regulation of the financial industry. In 2019 he’s donated to GOP candidates and South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham’s Funds for America’s Future PAC, among others. He also gave $1 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on maintaining a GOP House majority; $500,000 to the WFW Action Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing Republican women; and $200,000 to the American Unity PAC, which supports pro-LGBT Republicans.
BIO: Simon and, to a slightly lesser degree, her sister, Cynthia Simon-Skjodt, have emerged as Indiana’s biggest political donors following the death of their father, billionaire Melvin Simon. Melvin built Simon Property Group into the nation’s biggest shopping mall developer and dabbled in Hollywood, producing movies such as Zorro, the Gay Blade and 1982’s Porky’s. Melvin was also a donor to Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. The Simon sisters have supported progressive groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Defamation League for years, according to Politico, and boosted their political giving exponentially following Donald Trump’s election.
POLITICS: Deborah Simon pays particular attention to progressive issues in Indiana, despite—or perhaps because of—the state’s status as one of the nation’s most conservative. Since 2016, Deborah and Cynthia have poured millions into the Democratic party with the goal of flipping Congress and taking down vice president (and former Indiana governor) Mike Pence, who has been a particular target of their ire because of his regular attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. In 2019, Deborah Simon has poured money into Democratic congressional campaigns, state Democratic parties and national Democratic committees. She also put $1 million into David Brock’s American Bridge 21st Century super PAC and $1.5 million to the aptly named Senate Majority PAC.
BIO: Bernie Marcus, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to Newark, N.J., cofounded Home Depot in 1979 with backing from financier Ken Langone. By the time Marcus retired in 2002, he was a billionaire known for his hostility to organized labor and support of conservative politicians such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Marcus and his wife Billi have also emerged as some of Atlanta’s biggest philanthropists—they gave $250 million to launch the Atlanta Aquarium—and Marcus says he plans to give away most of his multibillion-dollar fortune on his death.
POLITICS: Marcus has emerged as one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, giving $7 million to help get Trump elected and another $7.9 million backing the GOP during the 2018 midterms. The couple have already given $1.8 million in hard money donations in 2019, the most of any donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s also poured $2 million into the Senate Leadership Fund, which backs senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and $500,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is tied to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
BIO: George Soros is one of the best-known investors in the world. The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor made billions as a currency speculator, most famously shorting the British pound during the 1992 Black Wednesday crisis. He’s also one of the world’s biggest philanthropists, focusing much of his giving on progressive and pro-democracy causes, which he supports via his Open Society Foundations. With the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing political movements throughout Europe, Soros has increasingly become a bogeyman to conservatives—Donald Trump has alleged that Soros paid for protesters against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—and anti-Semitic organizations who believe he is part of some sort of globalist conspiracy.
POLITICS: Soros is backing Democratic congressional candidates and progressive PACs and political organizations, and in July launched Democracy PAC, intended to be a base for his 2020 political activity, with a $5.1 million donation, the biggest single expenditure by any political donor in 2019. Even that amount is most likely just an initial donation though; in the 2016 presidential race, Soros spent some $20 million. And Soros doesn’t just give to national political causes: In recent years has taken a special interest in local prosecutor’s campaigns as part of a larger attempt to reform the nation’s system of criminal justice.
BIO: The power couple Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor emerged in recent years as powerful Democratic political donors and activists. Steyer became a billionaire as a managing partner at hedge fund Farallon Capital, which invested in a range of industries including coal, before reinventing himself as an environmental and green energy advocate. Taylor is the CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Beneficial State Bank, whose mission is to have a “triple bottom line” of profitability, the promotion of environmental sustainability and economic opportunity for poor communities.
POLITICS: Steyer spent some $87 million backing Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, in 2016, but his political giving extends a decade into the past; according to Vox, he has spent $365 million on political activities between 2009 and 2017. Still, most of the American public first became aware of Steyer in 2017, when he began spending millions on a campaign to impeach President Trump. Steyer then entered the Democratic presidential primary as a candidate, although his polling numbers have remained in the low single digits. He’s also pumped $6.5 million into his super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which focuses on pushing environmental issues in electoral politics. Taylor has given heavily to Democratic congressional candidates and is deeply involved in promoting greater regulation of the financial industry.
BIO: Dick Uihlein is a quintessential child of the Midwest: His ancestors founded Schlitz beer, and his father cofounded laminating, binding and office supplies company General Binding. Uihlein worked for his father’s company until 1980, when he founded the Pleasant Prairie, Wisc.-based Uline, which distributes boxes and other shipping supplies. (The name is intended to sound like Uihlein’s.)
POLITICS: The Uihleins are ultra-conservative—and that’s putting it mildly. They are pro-gun, anti-union, anti-immigrant and anti-gay. They have a track record of dogged support for the most right-wing political candidates; they continued funding Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, for example, after accusations that he had sexually assaulted high school girls emerged. In 2018 they funded TV ads in the Chicago gubernatorial race in which, according to Politico, a young woman thanked Illinois governor Bruce Rauner for “making all Illinois families pay for my abortions.” (Rauner, incidentally, was a Republican; the Uihleins were supporting his right-wing challenger.) All told, Dick and Elizabeth poured $40 million into GOP causes and candidates in the last election cycle and are spending big again this time. They’ve already given $2.5 million to the Club for Growth Action super PAC, which grew out of the Tea Party movement. They’ve also given $1 million to the Trump-aligned America First Action super PAC and have been vocal supporters of the president’s America First, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. But the Uihlein’s giving, which has often fueled primary battles between conservative and more conservative Republicans, may have backfired; most of the recipients of their money have lost, in the process possibly doing more harm than good to the Republican party.
BIO: Born in 1946, Donald Sussman grew up in Miami but attended boarding school at the Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Mass. He then earned a BS and an MBA from New York University. Sussman worked at Titan Industrial Corporation and a law firm after school and then founded his hedge fund, Paloma Partners, in 1981. Sussman was also an early investor in Paul Singer’s Elliott Management and quantitative fund D.E. Shaw.
POLITICS: Sussman was a key donor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and to the Democratic cause in the 2018 midterms, when he gave some $23 million to Democrats and helped to flip numerous seats in the House. In 2019, he has given gave $2 million to the House Majority PAC, Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action, which was founded to back Obama’s 2012 campaign and has become the primary super PAC supporting Democratic presidential candidates. He’s also given to a range of Democratic campaigns, including the maximum amount to New Jersey senator Corey Booker’s presidential effort.