Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is ponying up $2 billion to buy the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. But early in 2012, he rebuffed an in-person fundraising pitch by President Barack Obama. The commander-in-chief wanted potentially big-givers to donate generously to his outside fundraising group - which Ballmer apparently deemed a bad investment.
How we even know Ballmer was in the room at the high-roller Seattle fundraiser is a testament to author Kenneth P. Vogel's reporting prowess. Vogel, chief investigative reporter at Politico, has just published Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp - on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics.
It's Vogel's fly-on-the-wall treatment of his cross-country adventures sneaking into big-giver fundraising events -- and sometimes just walking in and chatting up participants. Big Money is a fascinating, yet often depressing, tale about what -- and who -- really matter in American elections.
Most books about campaign finance are dry tomes detailing the technicalities of political action committees (PACs), hard vs. soft money, and the like. It's enough to make a reader's eyes glaze over after the first chart or regression analysis. Big Money is instead an incisive, at-time hilarious, look at the very rich human beings who now dominate big-time political fundraising.
Not surprisingly, the Koch brothers are key protagonists. Billionaires many times over from their Koch Industries fortune, David and Charles Koch are the two most politically-active of four brothers. The clan inherited its initial wealth from their father, a stalwart right winger who co-founded the John Birch Society, and then used business savvy to parlay that inheritance into a much larger fortune.
For years the small government-minded Kochs worked outside of the Republican establishment. David Koch was even the 1980 Libertarian Party vice-presidential nominee, with the ticket winning about 1 percent of the vote in Ronald Reagan's shadow.
But new campaign finance terrain like the 2010 Citizen's United Supreme Court decision -- denounced by President Obama in that year's State of the Union address -- opened new channels to push the Kochs' libertarian values. Deep-pocketed tea party groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity pressured Republican lawmakers they helped elect in 2010 into opposing leadership-brokered deals on fiscal legislation, like raising the debt ceiling, and hammering out painful budget agreements with the Obama administration, Vogel reports.
In the past earmarks for lawmakers' districts, or even the threat of taking away Capitol Hill parking spaces, would have induced junior rank-and-file lawmakers to see things leadership's way. But now House Republican leadership has little leverage with the hardliners while other than to who had no interest in traditional go-along, get-along politics.
Democrats in Washington have done their best to demonize the Kochs - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invokes the siblings' names virtually every other sentence. And Vogel's tale has a certain Captain Ahab quality, through his quest to interview the elusive pair, or at least their ardent supporters, at semi-annual conferences in plush locations.
Big Money opens with Vogel's semi-successful attempts to infiltrate a Koch-sponsored confab in a posh Southern California desert resort. He gets inside and even manages to chat up Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin with tea party-backing. Ultimately Koch security catches the author, and harasses him throughout his away-from-Washington travels. Even when he's long gone from the conference premises - the book title's "suspicious vehicle" refers to a Riverside County, Calif., Sheriff's Department police report about his rental car, filed by Koch staffers.
Vogel manages to wrangle an interview with David Koch at the 2012 Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Fla. Koch explains why he's moved into the GOP camp.
"I think the Republican Party has a great chance of being successful and that's why I support it. The Libertarian Party is a great concept. I love the ideals, but it got too far off the deep end, and so I dropped out."
Of course Republican candidates aren't the only ones with political sugar daddies. Democratic donors have traditionally been more averse to big-money donations by rich outsiders. Not to mention their queasiness about they call the impact of big money on democracy.
In addition, previous such efforts, like billionaire George Soros's failed 2004 effort to oust President George W. Bush from office, made many potential big-givers wary. That seemed to be the thinking of Ballmer -- worth an estimated $20 billion -- and his even wealthier former colleague, Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates. "Neither Gates nor Ballmer donated a dime to Obama's super PAC, or any super PAC, for that matter," Vogel writes.
But others did. As Vogel observes, the famous "shellacking" Democrats took in the 2010 midterm elections, combined with assiduous courtship by top Obama campaign staffers and outside operatives, helped them get over their concerns.
In the 2012 election, the author notes, 5,667,658 small donors contributed to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns, giving $370 million. But another $470 million came from just 100 people.
Heading into the 2014 and 2016 midterms, expect that number to grow exponentially. To learn about who is likely to give and why, Kenneth P. Vogel's Big Money is a must-read.