By Albert Serna Jr.

February 22, 2024  OpenSecrets

 

“Guardian angel” donors poured more than $124 million into funding outside groups like super PACs in 2023, a new OpenSecrets analysis of Federal Election Commission filings found. The donors, ranging from conservative billionaires and Uline founders Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein to liberal LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, contributed to 40 different committees — mostly far-right and conservative groups.

Megadonors, who are considered to be “guardian angel donors” if they are a political group’s top contributors and account for 40% or more of its funds, wield considerable influence.

Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program, told OpenSecrets that guardian angel donors are an important source of funding for super PACs because they remove the need to please numerous small donors.

“One of the things that allows is an organization or a supported candidate could take maybe an unpopular stance and not have to worry about angering a lot of small donors because they have this one big donor in their pocket,” Vandewalker said.

The top five angel donors collectively contributed nearly $99 million to various political committees, accounting for more than 79% of the guardian angel donations in 2023. Four of those donors contributed significant amounts to conservative groups supporting Republicans while the other contributed to groups supporting Democrats and left-leaning causes.

Megadonors boosting Republicans

The Uihleins, along with conservative billionaires Kenneth GriffinJeffrey Yass and Timothy Mellon, are among the guardian angel donors funding political committees supporting Republicans.

The Uihleins donated over $35 million in total with $20 million of that as guardian angel donors, according to year-end data, including nearly $11 million to Restoration PAC which has been widely reported to fund election denial campaigns.

OpenSecrets also found that the Uihleins entirely funded Save Our Constitution PAC, which attempted but failed to change Ohio law in a way that would require 60% voter approval to make any amendments to the state constitution. This was ahead of a vote on ensuring reproductive rights that eventually passed with a 57% majority in the state, an issue the Uihleins have long opposed.

OpenSecrets’ analysis of 2023 year-end data shows that Yass, an early investor in TikTok, contributed $16 million to the conservative group Club For Growth Action, which targets both moderate Republicans and Democrats. The analysis also shows that Yass’ $6 million donation made him the primary donor for the Protect Freedom PAC, which previously supported Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), who publicly denied the validity of the 2020 election and spoke at an Oath Keeper event in 2022. In total, Yass spent more than $34 million on conservative super PACs as a guardian angel donor in 2023.

The hybrid PAC American Values 2024 received more than $15 million in funding from Timothy and Patricia Mellon to support independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign. Hybrid PACs, or Carey committees, are able to make direct contributions like a traditional PAC, while making independent expenditures as a super PAC. Timothy Mellon, a transportation executive, also donated to the Uihleins-backed Fair Courts America, which seeks to elect conservative judges.

OpenSecrets found that Griffin, an investor and hedge fund manager, donated $10 million to Keystone Renewal PAC, which supports republican candidates in Pennsylvania. Another Super PAC supporting Montana Republican Tim Sheehy, More Jobs, Less Government, received $5 million from the billionaire. According to reporting from The 19th, an early survey sent out by the committee to Montanans identified three genders: male, working woman and homemaker. Griffin’s donations as a guardian angel donor totaled $18 million.

The predominance of partisan funding has increased since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling reversed limits on spending, according to Vandewalker.

“There’s been a sort of development towards larger and larger amounts from a smaller and smaller class of very big donors since Citizens United in 2010,” Vandewalker said. “Essentially, that’s empowering those people in our politics over the millions and millions of voters who by majority rule are supposed to be controlling the outcome of elections.”

From the Left

In addition to the large influx of funds from conservative donors, groups on the other side of the aisle also received guardian angel funding from big names. Reid Hoffman, who has been a consistent donor to Democrats and liberal groups, donated nearly $11 million to various committees as a guardian angel, including Republican Accountability PAC. The super PAC, which actively campaigns against former President Donald Trump, received $4 million from the billionaire.

With Honor Fund, which works to elect veterans from both parties, was almost entirely funded by early Amazon investor Miguel Bezos — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ adoptive father — and his wife Jacklyn. The couple donated upwards of $4 million, accounting for just under 93% of the super PAC’s total receipts.

Other liberal donors contributed comparatively small amounts to various groups, including Justice Action Network and Pass the Torch USA which each received $1 million from billionaire couple Laura and John Arnold and real estate developer Andrew Schwartzberg, respectively.

The larger donations to conservative groups may reflect the active campaign already underway by Republicans to flip the U.S. Senate and reelect former president Trump, Vandewalkers said.

“Right now there’s arguably an active primary for the Republican presidential nomination, but not for the Democratic one so maybe that makes things more active on that side of the aisle,” he said.

 

-Photo image of Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein via Forbes-Argentina