The New, Old Face of GOP Money

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.