Stateline Story

Big Spenders Bolster State Party War Chests

The top 20 contributors to state Democratic and Republican parties this election include the chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, California's most famous legislator, the owner of the San Diego Chargers football team, and a mortgage-lending magnate, according to preliminary campaign finance figures.

The largest contributions were made to party organizations in seven states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan and New York, according to a list compiled for Stateline.org by the non-partisan Institute on Money in State Politics.

Seven of the biggest donors poured their money into California, whose state parties captured 40 percent of the top 20 contributions. GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's fund-raising prowess, the cost of the state's media market and a number of controversial ballot initiatives are fueling large donations to the Golden State, said Derek Willis, a researcher at the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity.

State party organizations are on pace to rake in record amounts this year, mostly from donors who give $200 or less, election experts say. But the groups also are wooing more mega-contributors, many of them first-time givers, to make up for a source of lost revenue: transfers from the national Democratic or Republican parties that are illegal this election year but that enriched state parties by $472 million in the past two election cycles.

"I would be stunned if [state parties] weren't doing everything they could to chase any kind of donation," Willis said.

James Pederson, a real-estate developer and chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, ranked as the single biggest donor to a state political party in the 2003-04 election cycle, giving more than $1.8 million to the organization he leads.

Second on the list is outgoing California Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D), who transferred more than $1.4 million left over from his own campaign committee into his state party's coffers. Because of term limits, Burton must relinquish his powerful post after a colorful political career spanning four decades.

San Diego Chargers owner Alex G. Spanos gave more than $1 million to the California GOP. In the past, Spanos also has contributed heavily to Republican state and federal candidates across the country, and this year gave $5 million to the conservative Progress for America Voter Fund, a so-called "527" issue-advocacy group, which is exempt from federal campaign contribution limits.

Roland Arnall, owner of Ameriquest Mortgage Co., and his wife, Dawn, each have given $490,000 to the California GOP, according to the Institute's findings. However, more recent reports from California's secretary of state show that the couple has contributed even more since the Institute's tabulations. Arnall's company, which has faced lawsuits for predatory lending, has given $50,000 supporting a ballot initiative to limit lawsuits for unfair business practices, and the company has given $1.7 million to Schwarzenegger's campaign account.

California's state parties, which ranked second only to Florida in state party contributions in the 2000 and 2002 elections, are becoming even more important to state legislative candidates. Campaign finance limits, approved by a state ballot initiative in 2000, cap contributions to individual candidates but not the parties.

That encourages larger donations to the state parties, which funnel the money to campaigns across the state, said Bob Stern, president of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It's a legal [money] laundering tool."

Other wealthy individuals who helped bankroll state parties include Richard DeVos Jr., son of Amway Corp.'s founder, and his wife, who each gave nearly $487,000 to the Michigan Republican Party.

While some donors may be motivated by partisan or personal reasons, others are hedging their bets and contributing to both parties. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians, one of several tribes that own casinos in California, gave more than a half million dollars to each state party.

This year, Indian casino owners are opposing a measure on California's Nov. 2 ballot to expand non-tribal gambling in the state and supporting a competing proposal to loosen restrictions on tribal casinos.

Despite the eye-catching contributions from the Morongo Indians, neither the Democratic nor Republican state parties are supporting the tribes' positions. Separately, supporters of tribal gaming have pumped at least $72.2 million into political action committees this year to support their ballot initiative efforts.

Another group contributing to state parties on both sides of the political aisle is New York Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. That organization, which represents 237,000 health care workers, gave a total of $617,100 to state parties, and $168,800 each to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee of New York and the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee. Chris Fleming, a spokesman for the group, said only that the union is supporting "health care policy and health care funding."

T.J. Michaels a spokeswoman at the group's national headquarters, said, "Regardless of political party, we support candidates who are willing to stand up for families on the issues of health care and jobs."

The contribution totals, based on donations made to Republican and Democratic parties and their affiliated organizations in 33 states in 2003 and 2004, are preliminary and incomplete because of states' varying reporting requirements, said Sue O'Connell, research and communication director of the Institute on Money in State Politics.

The snapshot analysis doesn't account for other forms of political donations, such as contributions to independent political action committees or non-profit "527" groups, which also play roles in state campaigns.

According to preliminary data, the top 20 contributors to state parties and affiliated organizations, their total contributions and their largest recipients are:

  1. James Pederson: $1.8 million to the Arizona Democratic Party
  2. Burton Senate Fund: $1.4 million to the California Democratic Party
  3. Morongo Band of Mission Indians: $1.12 million (California Democratic Party, $569,500; California Republican Party, $552,500)
  4. Alex G. Spanos: $1.03 million to the California Republican Party
  5. Roland and Dawn Arnall: $980,000 to the California Republican Party
  6. Richard Jr. and Betsy DeVos: $979,326 to the Michigan Republican Party
  7. New York State United Teachers: $778,330 to the New York State Democratic Party
  8. AT&T Corp.: $730,829 (Republican Party of Florida, $260,247)
  9. New York State Service Employees Local 1199/SEIU: $617,100 (Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee of N.Y., $168,800; New York Senate Republican Campaign Committee, $168,800)
  10. Chevron Texaco: $603,000 to the California Republican Campaign Committe
  11. Campaign Committee of Ohio Rep. Jon Husted (R): $560,000 to the Ohio House Republican Campaign Committee
  12. Campaign Committee of Georga Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor (D): $555,000 to the Democratic Party of Georgia
  13. Nassau County Democratic Committee: $541,311 to the New York State Democratic Party
  14. Nassau County Republican Committee: $526,575 to the New York State Republican Party
  15. William Lyon Homes: $525,000 to the California Republican Party
  16. Anheuser Busch Corp.: $483,768 (Republican Party of Florida, $126,500)
  17. Medical Society of the State of New York: $469,717 (New York State Republican Party, $168,800)
  18. Greater New York Hospital Association Management Corp.: $467,500 (Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee of NY, $204,000)
  19. Marion County Democratic Party: $458,982 to the Indiana Democratic Party
  20. Verizon: $453,291 (Republican Party of Florida, $105,684)