Wall Street is spending more on midterm elections than ever before—particularly in support of Republicans, who have a good shot of taking control of the Senate. But the donations are not coming from whom you might think.
A small group of ultra-wealthy private fund managers are dominating political spending this cycle, making up for declining involvement from banking executives.
CEOs like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan have tossed a few thousand dollars to a candidate or two of choice. Dimon, for example, gave House hopefuls Jeb Hensarling, a Republican, and Joe Crowley, a Democrat, $2,600 each this year, his only direct political contributions of 2014.
But hedge fund investors like Paul Singer of Elliott Management and Bob Mercer of Renaissance Technologies have poured millions of dollars to influence a slew of races across the country. Singer, for example, has given between $1 million and $2 million to three different conservative political action committees this year alone, groups that work to shape elections in numerous states.
Overall, employees of hedge funds have given $26.2 million to political candidates and committees in 2013 and 2014, already surpassing the previous midterm record of $13.7 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan data tracker. Some 70 percent has gone to Republicans this cycle; the split with Democrats was roughly even in 2010. Top hedge fund donors include employees of Elliott, Renaissance, Baupost Group, Equinox Partners and Citadel.
Private equity professionals also are giving in record amounts for the midterms, which historically attract far less cash than presidential election years. PE pros have donated $28.8 million this election cycle, up from $20.5 million in 2010, according to CRP. Like hedge funds, the industry gave equally to both parties in 2010 but now favors the GOP nearly 2 to 1. Top PE firm donors include J.W. Childs, Blackstone Group, BLS Investments, Bain Capital and Carlyle Group.
The rise of PE and hedge fund spending comes as bankers slow down.
Employees of commercial banks like Citigroup, J.P. Morgan and Bank of America have given $20.8 million this election cycle, down from $22.2 million in 2010, according to CRP. Investment-focused banks and securities brokers—a group including firms like UBS, Morgan Stanley and BlackRock—have given $51.2 million this cycle, down from $56.4 in 2010. Top donors include staffers from Goldman Sachs, Stephens Group, TD Ameritrade, Trust Asset Management and Sol Goldman Investments. Like their hedge and PE fund peers, the banking-heavy group also favor Republicans.
It all adds up to a record for the financial community. "Wall Street has ramped up its giving this cycle, delivering more than $120 million and already exceeding what they spent throughout the entire last midterm," CRP executive director Sheila Krumholz said in an email.
Krumholz noted that the increase this cycle is largely attributable to the much larger contributions ($32 million versus $7 million) going to outside spending groups such as super PACs and nonprofits that disclose their donors.That, she notes, comes from a small group of private managers who increasingly favor Republicans.
Libertarian-leaning Singer is Exhibit A. He is deeply distrustful of Democratic leadership and policies like monetary stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Washington's poor leadership, Singer has said, could cause economic disaster when combined with similarly poor fiscal stewardship around the world.
"Nobody can predict when things will unravel, how the unraveling will take place, or what the world will look like after the next crisis," Singer wrote in a July letter to investors. "But the numbers (debt, derivatives, and promises) are extraordinarily large, the dysfunction very powerful, and the leadership throughout the developed world very weak."
A major private equity donor is John Childs, founder of J.W. Childs. He's given $460,050 to political causes in 2013 and 2014, according to public filings. The most, $300,000, went to American Crossroads, the conservative PAC co-founded by Karl Rove. The group is a major force in the midterms, running television advertisements helpful to Republican Senate hopefuls Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, and Joni Ernst in Iowa.
Spokesmen for Singer and Childs did not respond to requests for comment.
Mercer avoids public comment but speaks with his checkboook. Recent donations include $500,000 to Women Speak Out, an anti-abortion PAC. Another $1 million this year has gone to a group supporting John Bolton, a potential Republican presidential candidate and backer of other politicians who are seen as strong on defense. Another $900,000 has gone to Club for Growth Action, which works to limit the size of government by backing conservative candidates like Arkansas Senate hopeful Tom Cotton. A spokesman for Mercer declined to comment.
The largest liberal-leaning donor is Tom Steyer, the retired founder of hedge fund firm Farallon Capital Management. Steyer, now a full-time environmentalist, is using his NextGen Climate Action group to attack candidates for their lack of concern on climate change. He has given $37.7 million to NextGen and a related group, CE Action Committee this year and last.
"The debate on climate change is settled: It is here, it is human-caused, and it is already having a devastating impact on our communities, but we need to accelerate the level of political support to address this critical issue before it's too late," Steyer told CNBC.com in May. "This means making politicians feel the heat—in their campaign coffers and at the polls."
Other relatively large political plays have come from longtime Democratic donors George Soros and Jim Simons. Soros, the retired founder of hedge fund firm Soros Fund Management (now a family office), has given a total of $1.5 million this year to three PACs: American Bridge 21st Century, House Majority PAC and League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund.
Another retired hedge funder, Simons has given $3 million between the House Majority PAC and the Senate Majority PAC, both of which support Democrats. A spokesman for Simons declined to comment and a rep for Soros didn't respond to a request.
Not all big private investors are engaged. Omega Advisors founder Leon Cooperman gave heavily to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign but has donated nothing to political causes this election cycle, according to public records. Steve Cohen, founder of SAC Capital Advisors (now Point72 Asset Management), was active in 2010 and 2012, but has also stayed out of the fray this cycle.
Other virtual no-shows for midterm races are billionaire investors Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, David Tepper of Appaloosa Management and Carl Icahn of Icahn Enterprises, according to public filings with the Federal Election Commission (It is technically possible that donors contributed to groups that are not required to disclose their supports).
One politician who has enjoyed rare support from both liberal and conservative financial professionals is Cory Booker, who won a special election for New Jersey's junior Senate seat in 2013 and is running for a full six-year term in November. Backers include Seth Klarman of Baupost Group, Julian Robertson of Tiger Management, retired hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt, Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, John Griffin of Blue Ridge Capital and Dan Loeb of Third Point.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story gave an incorrect political party affiliation for Joe Crowley.