The Largest Political Donation in US History Took Place in the 2022 Midterms

Despite GOP-orchestrated voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of many voters, tens of millions of people exercised their right to vote on November 8, and the 2022 midterms did not usher in the more widespread and acute breakdown of the democratic process that many had feared could occur.

There were no reports of major violence at the polls, for example, and majorities of voters in most states repudiated the election deniers who sought control over state election apparatuses solely to ensure that they could produce GOP electoral college victories even if the electorate had rejected such outcomes at the polls.

Yet even as many of us breathe a sigh of relief that the basic mechanisms of the voting process are still functioning, we must not lose sight of the ongoing crisis at the heart of U.S. democracy: the unprecedented, and largely secretive, role that the super-rich now play in managing U.S. electoral outcomes.

A huge amount of dark money now funds both super PACs and also, more generally, political interest groups. Earlier this year, The New York Times and ProPublica reported that 90-year-old Barre Seid, a secretive Chicago manufacturing tycoon, had donated $1.6 billion to the Marble Freedom Trust, to push its agenda of securing conservative judicial appointments up and down the ranks of state and federal judiciary. This is a long-term investment that over the coming years and decades will buttress conservatives as they groom the next generation of right-wing legal scholars, and work to ensure the election of politicians who will nominate ever more right-wing figures to judicial benches.

That money, the largest one-off political donation in U.S. history, instantly made Seid, hardly a household figure in U.S. public life, one of the country’s most important arbiters determining the face of the legal system — and by extension the country’s regulatory edifice, its environmental policies, access to abortion, voting rights, the fate of gun control laws, civil rights and so much more — over the coming decades. And it catapulted him into the top tier of politically active billionaires, joining a club that includes Charles Koch, on the right; George Soros, on the left; and a handful of others.

But modern U.S. billionaires don’t confine themselves to setting up or funding think tanks and other organizations intended to shape the public debate on key issues. It has now been 12 years since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened up the floodgates to corporate donations and super PAC monies coming into elections. And, as a result, each election cycle since then has seen the growing consequences of this decision, as the super-wealthy use their money to prop up pet candidates and determine crucial citizens’ initiatives.

In 2022, billionaire plutocrats, the U.S. equivalent of the Russian oligarchy, poured vast amounts of money into political races. Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) recently released a report which calculated that, through the end of September, 445 billionaires had collectively donated close to $900 million to political candidates this election season. Among these, a handful — a mere 20, according to the report — made up the bulk of these contributions, between them donating more than $600 million. By the time the election was held on November 8, ATF estimated the total donations made by U.S. billionaires would top $1 billion. Indeed, in late October, The Washington Post calculated that the top 50 political donors had injected $1.1 billion into political races this expensive election season.

Fifty-nine percent of these donations went to Republican Party candidates, although liberal billionaires George Soros and Michael Bloomberg also pumped huge sums into the elections, with the intent of shoring up Democratic congressional representation and pushing back against some of the anti-democracy forces coursing through the body-politic these days. Sam Bankman-Fried, the young cryptocurrency guru, also donated tens of millions of dollars to pro-Democratic PACs, presumably before his business empire suddenly crumbled in the first part of November.

In 2022, largely out of the public eye, billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel bankrolled candidates like Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters, and J.D. Vance, the newly elected senator from Ohio, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Building-supply magnate Diane Hendricks spent $16 million propping up Ron Johnson’s campaign for reelection as senator from Wisconsin, according to ATF data. The intervention was probably critical to sustaining the unpopular Johnson, arguably Donald Trump’s most vocal apologist in the Senate, in the last weeks of the campaign, as his Democratic opponent Mandela Barnes surged to within a point of victory in the election. Hendricks’s donations came on top of more than $20 million that she and fellow billionaires Dick and Liz Uihlein donated to Johnson’s campaign in 2016.

What did these billionaires get from their investment? A pliant senator willing to use his public office to push for amendments to tax legislation that would save his billionaire patrons hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced taxes.

In New York, Ronald Lauder, of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune, spent $11 million boosting GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin in his race against Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul. The money didn’t ultimately swing the election to Zeldin, but it did contribute to significantly narrowing the gap between the two candidates, and likely was influential in bringing out enough GOP voters to flip a critical number of the state’s congressional seats from blue to red — results that might produce the margin of victory nationally for the GOP to regain control of the House of Representatives.

In Los Angeles, mayoral hopeful Rick Caruso, a billionaire mall developer, has spent roughly $100 million of his own money in an advertising blitz that eclipsed by a factor of roughly 13 to 1 Karen Bass’s spending in the last months of the campaign and turned him into a viable candidate for taking the reins in city hall. As of this writing, with slightly less than half the votes counted, Caruso has a 2 percent lead over Bass.

The money injected into the political process by the super-wealthy is just the tip of the corporate-influence iceberg created by the Citizens United decision. All told, between super-wealthy donors, corporations and smaller donations nearly $17 billion was spent on the 2022 midterm elections, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets. In the five most contested Senate races alone, $1.3 billion was burnt through. No other country on Earth spends anywhere near as much during its election season.

The disproportionate influence played by a handful of billionaires, and by opaque “outside spending” groups, on the country’s political system isn’t healthy for democracy. Yes, the country dodged a bullet on Tuesday by rejecting election deniers who sought to capture critical state offices in order to undermine the integrity of election systems. But we’re a long way from repairing a political system that remains disconcertingly on the hook to corporate donors and to unaccountable billionaires.