In Florida’s vast political orbit, Barbara Stiefel hardly registers. Yet if President Barack Obama wins reelection, the 59-year-old retiree from Coral Gables will have played an outsized role.
Stiefel this year has written checks for $50,000 and $1 million to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, one of the new breed of “super PACs” using unlimited donations to scramble the rules of political campaigns.
Her money — a mountain compared to the $5,000 she was legally allowed to give directly to Obama — helped produce an onslaught of TV ads portraying Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch corporate raider.
Stiefel, whose family made money in the pharmaceutical business, is not alone in Florida, but she is the only Democratic super donor. Ten residents have given at least $500,000 to super PACs.
“There are some very wealthy people on both sides who are looking to make a statement,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida GOP fundraiser. “The super PAC steps it up another notch.”
Stiefel did not return messages seeking comment, which was a common thread among the super donors. They either declined to comment or could not be reached.
The nine other heavyweights in Florida have given to Republican causes:
• John W. Childs, 71, of Vero Beach. He runs a private equity firm in Boston and has given $3.1 million to three conservative super PACs, according to records collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. He contributed $1 million to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future; $1.1 million to Club for Growth Action; and $1 million to American Crossroads, a group started by Karl Rove. (Crossroads’ latest work is an ad attacking Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for getting a tax break on pasture land in Brevard County.)
• Bill Koch, 72, of Palm Beach. He is not as well known as his brothers, David and Charles, who have donated millions to conservative causes. Koch and two of his coal companies, Oxbow Carbon and Huron Carbon, have given $3 million to Restore Our Future. “He’s a big believer in Mitt Romney,” said Koch spokesman Brad Goldstein.
• Irving Moskowitz, 84, of Miami Beach. The businessman and California bingo operator has long been a pro-Israel activist, pushing for Jewish settlements in Arab sections of Jerusalem. Moskowitz gave $1 million to American Crossroads in February.
• Grace Evenstad, 68, of Naples, who owns a winery in Oregon. She has given $250,000 to American Crossroads and $500,000 to Restore Our Future. Her husband, Ken, is CEO of the pharmaceutical company Upsher-Smith.
• Margaret Caveney, 88, and husband Jack Caveney, 86, of North Palm Beach. They have ties to Panduit Corp. in Illinois. They have given $550,000 to several groups, including Restore Our Future and Winning Our Future, which supported Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential primary.
• Jerry Jordan, 73, of Palm Beach. He founded a hedge fund in Boston and is close to Romney. He and his wife, Darlene, 45, are on Romney’s Florida finance team. They have given $500,000 to Restore Our Future.
• Miguel "Mike" Fernandez, 60, of Miami. The chairman of MBF Health Care Partners, a private equity firm, is also on Romney’s finance team. He gave $500,000 to Restore Our Future. The related MBF Family Investments gave $500,000 to the same committee.
Big-time campaign money used to be the domain of an exclusive and powerful group of “bundlers” who would scoop up checks from a lot of people. Super PACs have given a more direct voice to the wealthy.
Traditional fundraisers say they haven’t felt a strong competition for dollars but it has gotten more complicated. “It takes longer to get where you’re going because of the clutter,” said Ann Herberger, a Republican fundraiser. “Instead of it being, ‘Okay, we’re raising money for Mitt Romney,’ now we’re raising money for Mitt Romney five different ways.”
Campaign finance watchdogs say super PACs, which flourished after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited contributions from corporations and unions, give too much voice to a small group of wealthy people who often have business interests.
Herberger worries about that, too. “I’m all for the free enterprise system, people getting rich and living their dream. But if I’m poor, is my speech not worth the same?”
Collectively, super PACs have raked in $398 million and counting, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and the top 1 percent of donors have given 58 percent of the total.
No one looms larger than Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has given more than $36 million to groups supporting Gingrich and Romney. He gave $1 million to Freedom PAC, a group supporting Florida Republican U.S. Senate candidate Connie Mack.
“Almost all of the money spent on these committees is going to attack ads,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group. “They contribute to public cynicism about public office holders. There’s no accountability. Candidates have to say [in their ads], ‘I take responsibility for that.’ Super PACs don’t.”
Democrats initially criticized the groups but scrambled to form their own, most notably Priorities USA Action. The group was getting swamped by its Republican rivals but donations began to pick up in May with a trio of $1 million donations, including one from Stiefel.
“The people who have been donating to us have been concerned about all the right-wing money that has been pouring into the race and were worried the president could lose,” said Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who oversees the effort. “The fact that Democrats have stepped up has been very helpful.”