Political Animal


April 23, 2012 12:05 PM The New, Old Face of GOP Money

By Ed Kilgore

If you had to typecast the gazillionaires who are increasingly dominating American politics, you’d probably think of two parallel “types.” One is the eccentric Daddy Warbucks with a pet cause or two and the kind of ego that dictates collecting politicians the way some of their peers collect art or vintage automobiles. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who almost single-handedly financed Newt Gingrich’s presidential run until the wheels fell off, fits it to a tee. And then you have the mega-rich zealots with a broader commitment not just to pols but to an ideological infrastructure—one that often very nicely meshes with the zealots’ business interests. Once the Brothers Hunt exemplified this type; now it’s the Brothers Koch.

But as Charles Homan (a former Washington Monthly editor) amply illustrated in a vast profile of the man for TNR, the new face of political money may belong to an old figure in Texas circles: Harold Simmons of Dallas.

[T]his February…Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings revealed [Simmons] to be the single largest contributor in American politics. In late March, the Dallas billionaire told the Journal that, along with his wife and his holding company, Contran, he had donated $18.7 million to Republican political organizations—not just Crossroads ($14.5 million) but also independent expenditure groups aligned with Mitt Romney ($800,000), Rick Santorum ($1.2 million), Newt Gingrich ($1.1 million), and Rick Perry ($1.1 million)—and that he planned to give nearly twice that much by November.

Simmons doesn’t seem to be a nut or a crank, and as his contributions this year show, isn’t into being the godfather for any particular pol. He seems to believe spreading a lot of money around on behalf of Republican politics at every level will give him both friends and policies that will enable him to make a whole lot more money. And so he keeps on turning up at key moments when some ready cash can make a difference, as in 2004 when he and fellow-Texan Bob Perry sank a large chunk of change into an obscure group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. As Homans reports, Simmons was the first big donor to go “all in” for his old buddy Karl Rove when American Crossroads was set up (Simmons, Perry, and another Texas friend, Robert Rowling, have ponied up over half of the Super-PAC’s war chest so far).

But it’s not like his contributions are philanthropic, or even broadly ideological. Simmons has invested heavily in creating a sort of Disney World for Nuclear Waste in West Texas that has already boosted his net worth by billions—but requires friendly politicians in Austin, in Washington, and in other states contributing low-level nuclear waste to the site. In particular, he could use the kind of expedited nuclear plant approval process that Mitt Romney has promised to create. As Julie Bykowicz of Bloomberg reported recently, an even bigger bonanza could come Simmons’ way if a future administration approves his site as an alternative to Yucca Mountain for high-level nuclear waste. He’s basically conducting a multi-layered strategy to attract deposits from every conceivable direction:

“Whatever federal switch has to be thrown to get uranium into the hole, believe me, it will be thrown; that’s how Harold Simmons works,” said Glenn Lewis, a former Texas environmental employee who retired in protest to Simmons’s influence in the state permitting process for his dump.

So you’ve got a very politically sophisticated tycoon looking to make many billions of dollars via inherently political decisions—in an atmosphere where the rules for the use of private money in national politics have very quickly come to emulate the wide-open system that has made Texas a corporate paradise.

It’s a scary scenario, but one we’d better get used to, particularly if Simmons’ new friend Mitt Romney becomes president.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on April 23, 2012 12:29 PM:

    Ed, you've hit on the mother lode. By having GOP in general, and Conservative Nut GOP if possible, in positions of Power, the Rich will get Richer. That's their view, anyway, because in lots of cases the way they make billions is by less that popular ways and means.....such a nuke waste dumps, unsafe coal mines and factories free from environmental regulations. That's why they pump millions into helping guys just like Mitt Romney achieve power. Romney is the perfect guy for them....a guy just like them. Just tell him what you want him to say/do, and it will be done. And if anyone doesn't like it, stack the Supreme Court will Right WIngers that will support it all or in the case of Citizens United- enable it. We are not that far away from a real bad situation, and the filthy Rich know it is within their grasp. And they know it may be the last time they'll have this chance.

  • SteveT on April 23, 2012 12:37 PM:

    And this is different from Walmart's bribery in Mexico how, exactly?

  • Gandalf on April 23, 2012 12:46 PM:

    Perhaps Simmons and his family should be required to live right next to his little nuclear waste paradise.

  • Skip on April 23, 2012 2:33 PM:

    SteveT, the difference is the Supreme Court made the purchase of political candidates legal.

    Purchased because the politician knows the repercussions from accepting such amounts of money, but accepts it anyway. Purchased because the contributor does not have to reveal what expected return he will ask after the election, bought by his investment.

    Wal-Mart just needs to get the matter in front of the Sup Crt.

  • Doug on April 23, 2012 8:02 PM:

    Welcome to the 1870s!

  • devtob on April 23, 2012 8:56 PM:

    What Simmons, the Koch brothers, et al., really want is no environmental regulation of their polluting businesses.

    Which will make then even richer.

    The amount they invest in semi-bribes is a lot less than their potential profits -- which is why they do it.