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By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/26/2011 5:51:58 PM ET 2011-06-26T21:51:58

When you're raising political cash these days, it helps to have a few billionaires in your corner.

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The outside role a small number of extremely wealthy donors is playing in the run up to the 2012 elections is highlighted by the first early finance reports of the new campaign cycle filed late last week by two so-called "super PACs " — political groups that can raise unlimited amounts from individuals, corporations and labor unions.

American Crossroads, the super PAC spearheaded by Karl Rove, is vowing a massive attack ad campaign aimed at defeating President Barack Obama next year. The group reported it had raised $3.8 million during the first six months of 2011.

The group proclaims on its website that its mission is to empower "America's citizens" to "take back control of their government." But the new report suggests American Crossroads is anything but a grassroots funded organization.

More than 90 percent of its money this year came from just three billionaire donors: Jerry Perenchio, the former Hollywood talent agent and ex-chairman of the Spanish language television network Univision, whose trust contributed $2 million; Dallas area hotel magnate Robert Rowling, who gave $1 million; and Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, who donated $500,000.

All three have given generously to Republican and conservative causes in the past. Perry, who bankrolled tort reform efforts to limit lawsuits, was American Crossroads' biggest single donor last year, giving the group $7 million.

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

"It’s the Willie Sutton syndrome—they’re going to where the money is," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy One, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform. "These groups are not looking for small donors to participate in the political process."

Nor is this merely a Republican phenomenon. The House Majority PAC, a newly formed group that recently announced an attack ad campaign targeting freshman Republicans backing GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals, reported it had raised $800,000 during the same time period.

Of that, 50 percent came from just a handful of wealthy donors and corporations. The most notable name on the list: billionaire financier George Soros, who kicked in $75,000. The contribution may be a sign that Soros, who in the past has donated tens of millions of dollars to Democratic causes, but largely sat out the 2010 congressional races, will be back in the business of helping Democrats win elections next year.

Others who helped bankroll House Majority PAC, according to the reports, included S. Donald Sussman, a billionaire hedge fund mogul, who contributed $150,000 and Fred Eychaner, a Chicago media magnate, who contributed $100,000. Sussman, another longtime Democrat donor, has more than a passing interest in boosting the prospects of House Democrats in next year’s election. He just last week married one of them: Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine. 

Other hefty donations included $25,000 a piece from Scott Nathan, the managing director of a Boston based investment firm called the Baupost Group, Integrated Archives Systems, a Palo Alto data firm, and Paul Egerman, a software entrepreneur. A group of labor unions which includes the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the Communication Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union contributed another $300,000.

The big contributions to the two super PACs illustrate the two-tiered system of political fundraising that is now thriving, thanks in part to a series of controversial Supreme Court rulings.

The campaign committees of political candidates — including those now running for president — are limited to so-called "hard money," or contributions of no more than $2,500 each per election from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees, all of which must be publicly disclosed. (The various GOP presidential candidates may disclose their initial hard money fundraising totals as early as this week, when they must report their totals to the Federal Election Commission.)

But thanks to the Supreme Court, the new super PACs can raise as much money as they can from anybody they want — including private corporations and labor unions — and spend it on ads promoting or attacking any political candidates they want. A separate category of groups — non-profit advocacy groups that are often closely linked to the super PACs — can do the same thing, and not even disclose where their money is coming from.

A spokesman for American Crossroads says the outside role of billionaire donors in funding groups like his is the result of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which banned large money contributions to the political parties. In the past, said Jonathan Collegio, big money donations would have gone to the political parties. Now, he said in an email, they go to "groups like Crossroads or the left leaning non-party groups. The money is the same; the groups getting the large donations just aren't parties any more."

Still, the two-tiered system infuriates reformers like Wertheimer, who says it has set the stage for an unprecedented avalanche of attack ads next year — much of it funded by billionaire donors, a great bulk of which will never be publicly disclosed. Indeed, fresh signs of just how big that avalanche will be came last Friday when the leaders of American Crossroads and its non-profit (and non-disclosing) affiliate, Crossroads GPS, said they are aiming to spend $120 million to beat Obama and try to gain complete GOP control of Congress.

But Mike Duncan, the chairman of American Crossroads, told a group of reporters the group's goals pale in comparison with the $2 billion he expects President Obama and various Democrat super PACs will end up raising. (To be sure, Duncan didn't give figures for what he expected the Republican candidate for president and other GOP super PACs and affiliates will spend.)

"We're going to have $2 billion spent in the suspension of reality," said Duncan.

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