AFTER THE SUPREME COURT issued its Citizens United decision in 2010, money poured into the U.S. electoral system like never before. Ten billion dollars will likely be spent on the 2012 race, up from $7 billion in 2008—making electioneering one of the few U.S. growth industries in an ailing economy. Campaigns and super PACs have already spent $332 million on TV advertising in the presidential race alone (three-quarters of that sum on negative ads). This avalanche of cash has caused a lot of angst about the future of democracy. But it also prompts a crasser question: Who is getting all that money?
A lot of the cash will be widely dispersed among the media empires that own TV stations in swing states or the large political firms that handle strategy for the presidential campaigns. But there are also plenty of consultants and operatives reaping the rewards of the booming campaign economy.
Thanks to the vagaries of campaign finance law, it’s not easy to figure out who has raked in the most: One operative told me that trying to establish standard incomes in her field was like “hugging Jell-O.” We looked at the owners of companies that have been paid some of the largest sums by the campaigns and the major super PACs—the Mitt Romney–aligned Restore Our Future, the Barack Obama–affiliated Priorities USA Action, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. Parts of these totals go to expenses, meaning that there’s no way to know precisely how much the owners take home. But using financial disclosures, news reports, and interviews with numerous political professionals, here’s what we learned about this year’s campaign super-rich.
Podium Capital Group:
Steve Roche began the election as the finance chair for the Romney campaign. But just as money has migrated from the candidates to the super PACs, so have some of the most experienced operatives. In August 2011, Roche became the chief fund-raiser for Restore Our Future.
The 57-year-old isn’t flashy—he “lives in a middle-American, suburban house,” says his friend and Boston political consultant Matt Keswick. And yet he’s proved extremely adept at parting wealthy Republicans from their money. Restore Our Future has raked in $90 million, making it the wealthiest super PAC in the race. Roche has been paid 4 percent of that total through a limited liability company under his control.
RUSSELL SCHREIFER, STUART STEVENS, ERIC FEHRNSTROM
American Rambler Productions:
Longtime partners Stuart Stevens and Russell Schriefer are the odd couple of Republican politics. Stevens is a daredevil who likes extreme sports and exotic travel; Schriefer is the model of a conventional political consultant, perhaps best-known for producing the devastating ad in 2004 that depicted John Kerry windsurfing. This year, they’re in charge of painstakingly crafting and maintaining Mitt Romney’s image. The company they run with adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, American Rambler Productions, has been paid $41 million by the campaign since last May, although that sum includes the cost of ads they’ve produced for Romney.
At least one Republican operative has mistaken the fresh-faced Spencer Zwick for one of Romney’s children, and the candidate himself calls Zwick his “sixth son.” The 32-year-old—a fellow Mormon—has been a constant presence in Romney’s orbit ever since the two connected at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He worked for Romney in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion; after the 2008 campaign, he set up a private-equity group with Tagg Romney.
Today, Zwick oversees fund-raising for Romney’s presidential effort. “He always laughs at Mitt’s jokes, which is a very important skill set,” notes Fraser Bullock, an Olympics and Bain Capital alum. Zwick’s company, SJZ, has been paid $9.5 million by the campaign. He holds Red Sox season tickets, makes generous philanthropic donations, and showers co-workers with thoughtful gifts. He’s also a snappy dresser, favoring Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, which Romney likes to tease him about.
Mentzer Media Services:
Media buyers are the defense contractors of election spending—they do well, regardless of other variables. That’s especially true this election: Since most super PACs exist to fund negative ads, the people who secure airtime for those spots are having a spectacular year. Chief among them is Bruce Mentzer, who placed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads in 2004. This election, he has placed virtually all of the ads paid for by Restore Our Future. Sixty-five million dollars has flowed through his Towson, Maryland, company. Most of that money goes to TV stations, but the ad buyer’s cut could be as much as 15 percent, according to industry standards.
Marketel Media and Intelimarc:
During the chaotic Republican primary—remember the Herman Cain boomlet?—flash-in-the-pan candidates suddenly had the resources to assemble major campaigns. That created a golden opportunity for Samuel Hassell. Until this election, he had little experience in electoral politics. His résumé largely consisted of various ad-sales jobs for Christian and right-wing radio stations. He’d once launched a vitriolic campaign against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. But last year, Hassell formed two new companies that produced radio and Internet ads on behalf of Newt Gingrich. Former Winning Our Future staffers wouldn’t say how Hassell had been chosen for the work, but Rick Tyler, one of its advisers, suggested that his inexperience was an asset. “Professionals have ruined the Republican Party,” he complained.
The 50-year-old Peter Valcarce was once labeled the “king of sleaze and smear” by a political antagonist for his no-holds-barred approach to the direct-mail business, which he has dominated in the West for years. (One of his mailers described a target as an “aclu lawyer,” and, to illustrate what that means, included a picture of a child lighting a cigarette.) This election, the Brigham Young graduate has designed the majority of the mailers for Restore Our Future, as well as some for American Crossroads, bringing his firm, Arena Communications, $5.7 million for producing what he calls “high-quality junk mail.” Asked if his work is lucrative, he indulged in a long pause. “You make an average living,” offered Valcarce, who lives in a stone mansion in the Utah town of Bountiful.
Jon Lerner belongs to the tribe of consultants who only work for candidates whose ideologies they share. As the go-to political consultant for the anti-tax Club For Growth, he has produced extraordinarily effective ad campaigns for conservative candidates like Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Mike Lee. This year, he is directing the Club’s advertising and conducting many of its polls. The results—both financial and electoral—have been impressive. His tiny firm, Red Sea, was behind the attacks that eviscerated Texas Senate Republican primary candidate David Dewhurst in one of the cycle’s most costly races. Red Sea also produced the ads that helped to defeat moderate Republican Senator Richard Lugar.
Paul Begala has one of the toughest jobs of any political professional this year: persuading morally conflicted Democrats to pour their money into super PACs. Begala was brought on last spring by Priorities USA Action, which has lagged far behind its Republican counterparts in the money race. And yet he doesn’t seem discouraged by his first foray into high-stakes fund-raising. “I guess it’s healthy to do something new in the twilight of my life,” he told me. “Well, maybe not the twilight. But it’s not the middle of my life, baby!” According to financial disclosures, the campaign has paid him $320,000 to date. “I’m kind of sheepish,” Begala says. “It’s a lot more money than most people make, and I get that. But I have been doing this for twenty-eight years.”
Peter D. Hart Research Associates:
Peter Hart has come a long way since his first job in politics—earning $75 a week for the pollster Lou Harris, who, as legend has it, used to deliver the latest numbers to John F. Kennedy while the candidate was in the bathtub. Now 70, the wiry, bespectacled Hart mostly withdrew from politics after serving as the pollster for the Walter Mondale campaign. For the past three decades, he has worked for commercial clients. But he returned to politics for one last race because the Obama-aligned super PAC badly wanted his expertise. Hart has a reputation for being obsessively meticulous, and he does not sugarcoat lousy approval ratings.
This article appeared in the September 13, 2012 issue of the magazine.