Eight years ago they were Bush “Pioneers.” By the 2004 election, if they did really well, they rose to “Ranger” status. No matter the name, the top 548 political fundraisers for George W. Bush utilized a practice called “bundling” to funnel hundreds of thousands each to the presidential campaign — and in turn often received sweet political payouts.
Today, the practice, which revolutionized presidential politics, has been refined by both parties and is more rampant in this election cycle than any before.
Bundlers are political fundraisers who lobby wealthy friends and associates to shell out the largest personal donations allowed under federal law. The fundraiser then “bundles” those donations and delivers them as a package. Despite directing more money to presidential campaigns than any other donor, lobbyist or company, the FEC does not require disclosure of bundler names or the amounts of money they raise.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain have reluctantly released their bundler lists — but only categorized money raised into funding ranges such as less than $100,000 or more than $500,000. At the end of August, 534 elites have directed at least $75.7 million to McCain, and 509 have gathered at least $63.3 million for Obama, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In Colorado, 64 bundlers have been at work this year — with Obama collecting at least $2 million and McCain at least $1.3 million. Interestingly, most Colorado bundlers supported neither McCain or Obama — but rather GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who recorded more than half of Colorado’s 64 bundlers and did overwhelmingly win Colorado’s Republican caucuses before dropping out of the race a short time later.
Although bundlers can only donate the maximum federal limit allowed by law to candidates, history has shown many of those who creatively bundle the donations of friends and colleagues see their efforts paid off.
Of 548 Bush bundlers, 368 — or nearly seven out of 10 — were rewarded with political appointments, ambassadorships, federal contracts or invitations to stay at the White House. One notable White House sleepover was former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who bundled for Bush in both campaigns.
Although many government watchdog groups express outrage over what appear to be obvious political payouts, the bundling practice that Bush used so well during his presidency is now being utilized by both Obama’s and McCain’s campaigns in record numbers.
And in Colorado, the list of current bundlers working for both McCain and Obama includes some of the state’s most powerful businessman, attorneys and political hotshots.
Who’s who — and who’s not
In 2000, only two Coloradans were bundling for Bush, including Owens and Solomon Trujillo, the CEO of U.S. West at the time. By 2004 the number had increased to nine, with four working for Bush, two for Democratic candidate Howard Dean and three for Democrat John Kerry. Joining Owens were onetime GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Benson (who is currently the president of the University of Colorado), and Republican fundraiser Malik Hasan. Other familiar names that year were Democrat Rollie Heath, who bundled for Dean, and Kerry bundler and former U.S. Senate candidate Tom Stickland.
Fast-forward to the 2008 election cycle. The number of Colorado bundlers has ballooned to 64 — a nearly 3,300 percent increase from 2000.
Obama lists 11 Coloradans as major bundlers, including Federico Peña, Denver’s former mayor and a cabinet member under President Clinton. Others include Wanda James, the former campaign manager for Jared Polis in the 2nd Congressional District, and Don Gips, a Clinton administration official who served as Al Gore’s chief domestic policy adviser.
Despite a larger base of bundling activity nationwide, McCain has fewer bundlers in Colorado. His list of eight includes some of the world’s richest and most powerful CEOs including former Microsoft exec Gregory C. Maffei, now the CEO of Liberty Media; Richard “Dick” Notebaert, former CEO of Qwest Communications; Charlie Ergen, EchoStar CEO and now with DISH Network; and former Bush bundler Trujillo.
As interesting, though, are the names of the Colorado players who are not on the list.
Namely, Romney, supremely popular among top-name Republicans in Colorado, has overshadowed McCain. Former Gov. Owens and University of Colorado president Benson bundled for Romney, as did outgoing Sen. Wayne Allard, former gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez and Attorney General John Suthers. Others, including the politically active Hasan family in Vail and Pueblo, have stayed out of the bundling game altogether this year.
McCain isn’t the only candidate with a list missing notable Colorado political spenders.
Democratic donors who bundled for John Kerry in 2004 but who are absent from Obama’s list include Michael Goldberg, Strickland and Denver attorney Norm Brownstein — the latter who bundled for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson this year. Heath and his wife, former U.S. Senate candidate Josie Heath, who bundled for Dean in 2004, are not on Obama’s list either.
The gray in campaign finance
Although the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has strict reporting laws for campaign donations, there is no rule requiring candidates to release their bundler lists or amounts raised. There is legislation requiring campaigns to disclose bundling activities of paid lobbyists, but the guidelines have not been put in place. The result has been a delayed effort by both presidential campaigns to identify their biggest fundraisers.
Under pressure to follow the lead of Bush, who eventually disclosed his bundlers, both campaigns have disclosed those who are raising massive amounts of cash for their campaigns on their Web sites; but the information is sketchy at best and makes it difficult to track exact amounts.
“The problem with bundling is you don’t know where the bundlers got the money, you just know that a bundler reached a certain threshold,” said Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which tracked Bush bundlers and subsequent political payouts.
“There is no link between the bundler and the money they bring in and in that sense, the amount raised by bundling has displaced the donations that used to come from corporate treasuries and soft money contributions,” McDonald said. “Instead of writing a check from the company to the campaign (which is illegal under FEC guidelines), bundling has allowed CEOs to bring campaigns the same kinds of large donations.”
This year, both the McCain and Obama campaigns have been slow to disclose information about their bundlers, said Massie Ritsch, communications director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations.
“Since these are the people bringing in the big money for the campaign there should be the same level of disclosure required for them as there are for the people who are giving as little as $250,” Ritcsh said. “The money, of course, is still coming from individuals in limited amounts, but the lack of disclosure allows executives at companies to hide their involvement in raising money for a campaign and to prevent speculation about what they might be seeking for their company or industry in return.”
The thanks they get
Although bundling is inherent to all forms of fundraising, its widespread use in presidential politics became more well known during the Bush administration’s last eight years. After the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 eliminated “soft money” donations from companies and others, the importance of presidential bundling increased tenfold, analysts say.
According to Texans for Public Justice, nearly 69 percent of the 548 Bush Pioneers and Rangers — many of whom were lobbyists and corporate CEOs — received political pay-outs from the administration including:
• 146 received political appointments within the administration
• 125 were affiliated with 102 companies that received federal contracts
• 24 received American ambassadorships to foreign countries
• 47 were appointed to Bush’s presidential transition team
• 26 were invited to “sleepovers” at the White House or Camp David
Although it’s impossible to predict what benefits will come to this year’s bundlers nationwide and in Colorado, it’s not a stretch to expect some form of gratitude from whomever ultimately wins the White House.
“The link between money and presidential payoff with jobs and favors of other sorts is pretty direct,” McDonald said. “There is no denying that what gets you politically noticed at the federal level, as well as the local level, is offering many financial contributions to the campaigns.
“That is the way the political system works in America.”