In striking down major portions of federal campaign finance law in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for unlimited "independent" expenditures on behalf of presidential candidates. As long as the groups doing the spending - and the donors that bankroll them - don't directly coordinate their efforts with the candidates they're backing, the Court said, the sky's the limit. The result has been a record-shattering flood of TV and radio commercials, Internet ads, robocalls and other persuasive efforts by the "Super PACs" that its decision spawned.
Behind the Super PACs are such deep-pocketed donors as Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who's said to be worth nearly $25 billion. Adelson reportedly intends to spend up to $100 million to put Republican Mitt Romney in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress. "We think '$100 million, wow!'" one of Adelson's friends recently told the New York Times. "But it's a meaningless amount of money to him."
The statement may seem shocking to those with short memories. But in truth, this is a movie we've seen before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, President Richard Nixon's version of Adelson was W. Clement Stone, who amassed a vast fortune by dispatching an army of door-to-door salesmen to peddle life-insurance policies. Stone, who authored a series of motivational books with such titles as The Success System That Never Fails, was determined to see Nixon - whom he deemed a fellow positive thinker - to be elected and re-elected at all costs.
Back then, admittedly, that sort of resolve didn't cost as much as it does today. From 1968 to 1973, Stone quietly pumped about $5 million (roughly $30 million in today's dollars) into Nixon's campaigns, making modest donations to hundreds of front organizations - with names such as the Citizen Issue Committee for Good Government and the Independent Research Committee - set up to avoid legal limits on campaign contributions. Stone was so eager to buy the Oval Office for Nixon that he actually chided Nixon's fundraising chief, Maurice Stans, for not asking for more money. "Maury, you're not aiming high enough," he reportedly said. "Ask for $50,000, $100,000, $250,000." He even offered to help Nixon pay $460,000 in back income taxes. (Nixon declined.)
When wealthy donors go "all in" to help elect a candidate, it invariably leads to the question of what they might be expecting in return. Stone, for example, reportedly was interested in going to London as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, a prestigious post. But the Watergate scandal nixed any chance of that; instead, he was called to testify at the 1974 criminal conspiracy trial of Stans and John Mitchell, Nixon's campaign manager (and attorney general). Stone continued to make political contributions in smaller amounts to such candidates as Bob Dole and George W. Bush, right up until his death in 2002.
As for Adelson, his precise motivations may be less clear. Beyond Adelson's opposition to President Obama, the Times noted, his company, Las Vegas Sands, is under federal investigation for possible violations of a federal antibribery law linked to its expansion in the Chinese gambling district of Macau. -Patrick J. Kiger