How James and Kathryn Murdoch became a political power couple in the Trump era

Key Points
  • James Murdoch, one of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch's sons, and spouse Kathryn Murdoch have used their cash and influence to become a political power couple in a fractured Washington.
  • They have also focused some of their efforts on opposing President Donald Trump. 
  • In an exclusive interview with CNBC, Kathryn Murdoch discussed how she and her husband became involved with what she describes as standing up for democracy reform. 

In this article

James Murdoch (L) and his wife Kathryn Hufschmid arrive at St Bride's church on Fleet Street in central London on March 5, 2016, to attend a ceremony of celebration a day after the official marriage of Australian born media magnate Rupert Murdoch and former model Jerry Hall.
Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

The powerful Murdoch family is often linked to conservative politics, particularly through its control of Fox News. Yet James Murdoch, one of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch's sons, and spouse Kathryn Murdoch are working to create their own legacy by supporting causes across the political spectrum.

They have have used their cash and influence to become a political power couple in a fractured Washington. 

A list from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics showing the 2020 election cycle's top donors ranks James and Kathryn Murdoch 13th among a group of 100 contributors from both parties. Data shows that the Murdochs have contributed over $11 million to political causes, with over $2.5 million going to Democrats. 

They have also focused some of their efforts on opposing President Donald Trump. 

In an exclusive interview with CNBC, Kathryn Murdoch discussed how she and her husband became involved with what she describes as standing up for democracy reform. 

She also said she sees Trump and his administration standing in the way of several reforms. Murdoch points to Trump's dismissive attitude toward climate change and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly his efforts to push back on the concept of expanded voting by mail, as reasons she believes it's time for Joe Biden to become president.  

"I think it is disappointing that the administration is relying on feelings about things, gut instincts, rather than on data and science," Kathryn Murdoch said Wednesday, when asked about Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. "It was a real missed opportunity from the White House. I think they are going to end up harming their own voters because lots of rural people are well served by the postal service and that's an example of those feelings getting in the way of data and the science," she said in discussing Trump's push back against mail-in ballots. 

Voting by mail has been expanded in certain states in the wake of a pandemic that has made in-person voting a risky proposition for many voters and volunteers.  

Kathryn Murdoch noted Biden's professed reliance on science and data is one of the reasons she and and her husband are supporting the former vice president's campaign. The two combined in June to contribute over $1.2 million to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising operation between Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission records. 

Where the money comes from for your stimulus check
Where the money comes from for your stimulus check

Into the limelight

Still, the story of how the couple has become influential donors while remaining largely out of the political limelight starts, at least in part, around the time of the 2018 congressional midterm elections, when Democrats won the majority in the House. 

For a group known as Unite America, it was a time of reflection and recalculation. Many of the independent nominees that the nonpartisan organization endorsed that year ended up losing. Its political action committees, according to records, ended up having at least $230,000 on hand at the end of the 2018 election cycle. Their 501(c)3, called the Unite America Institute, finished with just over $10,000 in net assets, according to its 2018 disclosure report. 

The group needed a new path and more funding. After receiving multiyear donor commitments from their network, they turned to Kathryn Murdoch for a potential partnership. A blog post by Unite America says the group first met Murdoch in December 2017.

Just before she became the co-chair of Unite America in 2019, the couple's foundation, Quadrivium, conducted a study that depicted where best to put financial resources to fight against what she saw as gridlock in Washington. She also aimed to increase voter participation and combat climate change, among other initiatives, she told CNBC.

That road map, which was presented to Unite America's executive director, Nick Troiano at the time, mirrored what the group was hoping to move toward in the coming years, and the two organizations "combined forces," she explained. 

Charles Wheelan, the founder of Unite America, declined to comment.

Quadrivium, Murdoch said, has continued to help many of the groups they originally planned to finance, including Defending Democracy Together, a 501(c)(4) organization led by Republican Bill Kristol, a former member of President Ronald Reagan's administration and a staunch Trump critic. The group has crafted numerous projects involving other Republican officials, with the intention of taking down Trump in November. Those projects include the Republican Voters Against Trump, Republicans for the Rule of Law and Former Republican National Security Officials for Biden. A list of Quadrivium grantees provided to CNBC shows that Republicans for the Rule of Law has received funding from the Murdoch backed foundation. 

A spokeswoman for Defending Democracy Together confirmed that Quadrivium did help fund the group, which was founded nearly two years ago. 

Another group that received assistance from Quadrivium, Murdoch said, is Potential Energy, a nonprofit "that brings together America's leading creative, analytic and media agencies to shift the narrative on climate change," according to its website. Another group is Represent Us, which, according to their website, is "a powerful movement of independents, progressives, and conservatives building on America's long tradition of pursuing federal reform through the states." Their board includes actress Jennifer Lawrence and actor Ed Helms. Quadrivium is listed on the Represent Us website as a foundation that's given at least $100,000. 

A representative for Potential Energy did not return a request for comment.

Outside of Kathryn's ongoing ventures through Quadrivium, the Murdochs' total donations to federal candidates and outside fundraising committees rank in the top 20 for the first time since at least 2010, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. They've contributed just under $12 million so far this cycle, data shows, with some going toward Biden's campaign for president in the second quarter. 

James and Kathryn Murdoch have so far given more than several megadonors such as George Soros, Reid Hoffman and Haim Saban, according to the data. 

The Murdoch family, headed by Rupert Murdoch, controls Fox Corp. and News Corp. James' brother Lachlan Murdoch is the CEO of Fox, which has multiple assets including Fox News. James Murdoch recently decided to step down from the News Corp. board and was CEO of 21st Century Fox before it was acquired by Disney. Fox News' primetime hosts have often publicly supported Trump and his policies. 

Meanwhile, James Murdoch himself began publicly resisting Trump in 2017 after the infamous rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which an anti-racism protester was killed. In an email, while he was the CEO of 21st Century Fox, Murdoch told friends, "I can't even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans, and others must all agree on this, and it compromises nothing for them to do so."

His comments came after Trump said there were "very fine people on both sides" of those protests. Murdoch noted in the email that he and Kathryn Murdoch would be donating $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League. 

Murdoch said in July of this year that he was leaving the board of News Corp. "due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions." He did not expand on what specific disagreements he had. News Corp.'s businesses include the New York Post and Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal. 

The Murdoch family, according to Forbes, is worth $18 billion. James Murdoch declined CNBC's request to be interviewed for this story.  

2020 election arrives 

James and Kathryn Murdoch's financial might has been on full display during the 2020 election cycle.

Kathryn Murdoch has given over $8 million to Unite America's PAC since joining the team early last year, data from CRP shows. That's over half of the $14 million raised this cycle alone. She has privately encouraged other donors in her network of wealthy philanthropists to back the organization, according to people familiar with the matter, who declined to be named as those efforts are often in private. 

The Unite America Fund, according to its website, has a slew of groups in its donor portfolio that focus on a range of political issues, including those looking to make an impact on gerrymandering and vote by mail. 

Those who have worked with Kathryn Murdoch recently say that her efforts with Unite America are why she's become such a key player in the political finance world. 

"She's a powerhouse and she's really started to convince the philanthropic community that political philanthropy is the greatest contribution they can make to the country right now," former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., told CNBC in an interview. Curbelo, who joined Unite America's board a few months ago, said that in a recent Zoom conference call with the group's leaders and potential new donors, Murdoch made her own personal pitch as to why financiers should pitch in. 

Murdoch was "just trying to put business and civic leaders in the mindset in investing into political philanthropy that will lead to meaningful reforms," he said in describing her message. "For philanthropy, investing in politics has never been a thing, and in her case it's the most important thing right now." he said. 

Others on the board with ties to the business and philanthropic community include Marc Merrill, the co-founder of video game developer Riot Games; Shawn Riegsecker, the CEO of Centro; and Katherine Gehl, the former CEO of Gehl Foods.

Unite America promotes itself as only looking to get involved with primary elections, backing both Democrats and Republicans. One of its affiliated super PACs, called Fix Congress Now, looked to make an impact in the Republican primary against Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. The PAC donated $50,000 to Priorities for Iowa, a super PAC that spent almost $340,000 supporting Randy Feenstra, King's primary opponent, CRP data shows. Feenstra went on to beat King to become the Republican nominee for Iowa's Fourth District. 

Murdoch, according to a person familiar with the matter, wasn't involved with deciding to give to the PAC, but she and other board members were in favor of backing Feenstra over King, who has a long history of racist remarks.

In the 2020 cycle, seven out of 10 Unite America congressional candidates and 18 out of 22 state legislative candidates the group supported won their primaries.

Giving to Democrats and others

This cycle also marks the most Kathryn Murdoch herself has spent on individual candidates and outside political efforts. With the exception of Unite America, all of her contributions are to Democrats. A person close to her said her decisions on whom to support are tied to what she believes is a threat to democracy. 

She gave $615,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee between Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings. She gave $1 million to the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to helping Democrats become the majority in the U.S. Senate. She's also given $540,000 to Future Forward USA, which has so far spent $2 million going after Trump. 

After his tenure as CEO of 21st Century Fox ended last year, James Murdoch founded an investment firm in March 2019 called Lupa Systems. 

Since then, Murdoch has been giving heavily to Democrats. Though he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton's 2016 run for president while he was in charge at Fox, he has surpassed prior donation amounts as of about two months until the upcoming Election Day. 

One of the biggest checks James Murdoch wrote was $615,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, FEC records show. He also gave a small check to Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign for president during the primary. James Murdoch also recently donated $250,000 to Change Now, a super PAC that has targeted Trump. He gave $60,000 to Black PAC, a super PAC that focuses on mobilizing Black voters. The committee has spent $1.2 million targeting Trump and $1.6 million backing Biden, records show. 

Murdoch has also contributed max checks of $2,800 to a variety of Senate races that are in play for Democrats this cycle. He's given to Democrats running in Maine, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado and Montana. Of those five states, all are considered toss-ups except for Arizona, which is now marked as "lean Democrat" by the Cook Political Report. 

Murdoch is also on the board of Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank that has teamed up with Quadrivium, the Murdoch foundation, to counter what they call "high tech illiberalism." 

Through a grant given by Quadrivium, one of the CNAS projects includes focusing "on developing a U.S. and allied strategy to curb China's ability to use digital infrastructure to contravene international standards for freedom and transparency." 

Kathryn Murdoch says she's supporting Joe Biden
Kathryn Murdoch says she's supporting Joe Biden