Big campaign donors' money stays mainly in Iowa

Total donations may seem small, but having a large impact, experts say

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Published: October 8 2012 | 8:16 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:38 am in

An influential group of Iowans may have a significant impact on who the next U.S. president is with, at least when compared to what big donors in other states give, pennies on the barrel.

While donations like the total $199,600 Knapp Properties CEO and board chairman Bill Knapp II has given Democrats in 2011 and 2012 to campaign for state and federal offices may seem like a lot, they pale in comparison to what big donors are giving in other states, like Hollywood movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg’s more than $2 million to Democratic Super PACs.

Yet, Iowa’s top donors may do a better job of getting voters to the polls in what is considered to be a swing state in this presidential election because their money is staying in Iowa and being used to motivate its voters, political science experts told IowaWatch.

“It’s still a lot of money,” said Kyle Klondik, director of communications for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Maybe Iowa doesn’t have the same level of super rich people (as other states) and maybe that explains it.”

Steffen Schmidt, a political science and public policy professor at Iowa State University, said the quantity of donors, rather than the amount of their donations, matters most because each small donation likely means one vote.

“The Koch brothers may be giving millions of dollars, but each Koch brother only has one vote,” Schmidt said, referring to the billionaire brothers from Wichita, Kan., who fund conservative and libertarian organizations. And that vote wouldn’t be cast in Iowa.

Political money has become a major theme in this year’s election season with the rise of Super PACs and other vehicles for so-called “soft money.”

Megan Stiles, spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party, said this year will be the Republican Party’s biggest “ground game” in Iowa, with a party record of 12 offices throughout the state. She said the party has made more voter contacts this election cycle, knocking on 10 times as many doors than it did in 2008.

“Our state is in play,” Tim Hagle, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa, said. That is true, he said, even though Iowa has only six electoral votes because of its swing-state status in an election that is expected to be close.

Top donors

Knapp, of Des Moines, emerged as Iowa’s top donor to state and federal campaigns in an analysis of 2011 and 2012 Federal Election Commission and Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure data by the Investigative News Network, IowaWatch and several other non-profit, non-partisan news agencies. He has been a consistent Democratic supporter in Iowa politics, and most of his money went to the state party.

The other Top 10 campaign donors in the analysis, which did not include local elections, are:

  • Bruce Rastetter of Iowa Falls, CEO of Summit Group, co-founder of Hawkeye Energy Holdings and Iowa Board of Regents member: $173,300, favoring Republicans.
  • James Cownie of Des Moines, owner at JSC Properties: $117,565, favoring Republicans.
  • Frederick Hubbell of Des Moines, retired executive board member of ING Group: $114,275, favoring Democrats.
  • Gregory Abel of West Des Moines, chairman, president and CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co.: — $97,738, favoring Republicans but also giving to Democrats.
  • Gerald Kirke, West Des Moines, chairman and founder of Wild Rose Entertainment: $92,850, favoring Republicans.
  • Van G. Miller, Waterloo, CEO and founder of VGM Group: $78,900, favoring Republicans but also giving to Democrats.
  • Fred Weitz of West Des Moines, retired chief executive of Weitz Co. and CEO at Essex Meadows: $77,810, favoring Democrats.
  • Denny Elwell of Ankeny, chairman of the board at Denny Elwell Co.: $71,000, favoring Republicans.
  • John Smith of Cedar Rapids, chairman of the board at CRST International: $70,600, favoring Republicans.

Other states

Though a majority of Iowa money comes from within the state, a handful of individuals from throughout the country have pumped money to state candidates.

Susan Groff, who owns a construction equipment rental company called Northwest Excavating in California, has donated $15,000 to the state’s Republican Party over the past two years. Though Groff could not be reached for comment, those with the party’s state office say it’s common for the party to receive large donations from other states, particularly when Iowa is a battleground state.

“Some Republicans, in say, California, will donate to help the Republican Party (in Iowa) because they feel it will go further than if they donate where they live in a more Democratic state,” Stiles said. “But in terms of seeking out-of-state donations, we haven’t really been doing that.”

Wealthy out-of-state Democrats have chipped in, too, including Colorado software entrepreneur and gay rights activist Tim Gill. Gill has given $25,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party in a year when The Family Leader, a social conservative group, is running a bus tour to oust Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who ruled in favor of legalizing same sex marriage in 2009.

Democrats also have received donations from Chicago millionaire Fred Eychaner, who gave $25,000 to Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal in September 2011. That donation made him the largest single contributor to Gronstal’s campaign.

Iowa’s top 10 donors gave the national Republican Party $245,100 and the national Democratic Party $77,750, the data show. They gave Republican candidates for federal office $140,300 and Democratic candidates $73,150.

Concedes advantage

Weitz conceded that his wealth likely provides him with an unfair advantage when it comes to political clout. He donates to Democrats but said he doesn’t feel he abuses the system.

“I can talk to (U.S. Rep) Leonard Boswell. I could talk to Chet Culver when he was governor. And I’m not saying they don’t want to talk to other people who don’t give as much money, but certainly, it’s easier for me,” Weitz said.

IowaWatch.org is a non-profit, online news website operated by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, which is dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.

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