Super PAC's Little Guys

Federal Election Commission super PAC filings proved largely anti-climactic when the figures were released Tuesday. Suspicions were confirmed that Jon Huntsman's largest benefactor was his father, who chipped in 70 percent of the funds for the PAC supporting his son. And Wall Street bankers have poured millions of dollars into Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Romney that pummeled Newt Gingrich in Florida, had, according to the commission’s figures, countless individual contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The group raised $17,947,952.77 off 199 donors in the second half of 2011. That levels out to an average donation of more than $90,000 per person. But, interspersed among the six-figure donations, were eight checks written for $100 or less. Three more people donated between $100 and $1,000. Who exactly were these people who believed that their $100 donation would make a difference among contributions from Wall Street figures like John Paulson, who alone gave $1 million to the Romney super PAC?

The Prospect tracked down a handful of Restore Our Future's small-dollar donors, an entirely male group of mostly middle-aged or older conservatives. Some worked in business, others were retired, but they all had their reasons for thinking that their small bits of change would play a role in the 2012 election.

Joe Part owns an insurance business in Palm Harbor, Florida, not far from Tampa. He was on the golf course when I reached him by phone a little after 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, killing time at the country club while he waited for his grandkids. "I just felt that this would be a very effective way for me in a very small way to add some voice and financial resources to a message I want to get out there," he said of his contribution to Restore Our Future. He couldn't even recall exactly how much he donated until I reminded him—it was $100. The donation was largely a spur-of-the-moment decision after he read a news article on the various super PACs. He wasn't too concerned that the high-dollar donors would drown out his smaller contribution. "Not only do I not care that it might be overwhelmed by a $1 million contribution, I welcome that," he said. " I thought my minor contribution in addition to the mega-contribution could really participate in a forceful, non-diluted message."

Part said that he voted for Romney in the Florida primary earlier this week but didn't view Restore Our Future solely as a means to prop up Romney's candidacy. Rather, he hoped that the PAC would use Romney as a vehicle to promote an unfiltered pro-business message, without having to compromise its rhetoric like a typical candidate pandering for votes. "With the PACs, it's a lot easier to focus on a specific, narrow interest. My interest happens to be business advocacy," he said.

Another member of the $100-or-less club shared Part's concern that the Romney campaign wouldn't be up to the task of defending business without a little waffling. "I felt that the PAC would be less restrictive in its advertising than the Romney campaign directly," this donor—who wished to remain anonymous—said in an e-mail to the Prospect. "I was very concerned that Gov. Romney's rivals were too extreme, unqualified to be President, or both.  I knew in particular that Mr. Gingrich would eventually return to his nasty inclinations despite his promises to the contrary.  I felt that the PAC would effectively fight back against him whereas the regular campaign might not be sufficiently aggressive." This contributor—who described his donation as "relatively meager"—included a message in the open comment space when he donated online, encouraging the group to leave aside divisive social issues and stick to the business material. "I hope the Governor will avoid pushing wedge issues altogether during the campaign and, if elected, during his term in office," the donor wrote. "One can only hope."

This group of little guys wasn't all cool-headed businessmen. A 67-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, Jon Byron was livid when I spoke with him yesterday, not about the presidential campaign but about his own economic predicament. He offered a heart-wrenching story of struggling to stay afloat as the value of his Reno home plummets and he barely meets monthly mortgage payments. He became less of a sympathetic figure, though, when he shifted to extended diatribes against the Latino community as the culprit for his situation. "I think the Latin people in this country, because they have the right to vote, they all band together, that's what they're doing," he said. "The Anglo race and the Black race don't realize the power they have." An anti-Obama birther, Byron couldn't offer a rational explanation for his small-dollar donation and just railed against the system in general. An independent voter, Byron will vote for "sensible man" Romney, mainly because he sees the Obama presidency as an utter failure.

"Let's face it, politics is about money," Byron said. "The system ought to have a deal where everybody gets $100 million to run for president, and we the taxpayers pay for it. That way, it’s a level playing field." While Byron’s reasoning may rest on racially tinged conspiracy theories, he isn't alone in critiquing the current role of money in politics. "They're all distasteful," Part said of the recent barrage of negative TV ads that had aired in Florida. "It's horrible. You sit there with your grandchildren, and it's just numbing. I candidly don't know who pays any attention to them."

But it was, after all, Restore Our Future, the group Part donated to and had spoken highly of just minutes earlier, that produced many of those negative commercials. I asked how he reconciled those two apparently competing notions. "I know many, many people are influenced by these ads—I'm not one of them. But the people who are influenced I want influenced," he said. " My hope is that after the primary, these PACs will focus more thoughtfully on presenting distinctions in the candidates. Who knows how negative they might be—I certainly hope my few dollars aren't going to contribute to that. But who knows? You give your money and hope for good stewardship of those dollars."

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