Your mortgage. Your car payment. Your student loans. These may be some of the biggest checks you write each month. Now imagine writing a check for $50,000 or $100,000 and expecting nothing in return.
The amount of money flowing into campaigns grows each year. According to the website, Oppen Secrets, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have spent at least $736 million dollars on their presidential bids.
In Iowa’s Third District Congressional Race, Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham have laid out more than $3.5 million. Even local races can cost candidates hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, where is all the money coming from? PACS, companies and committees donate the bulk of the money to candidates. But there are also a few individual contributors writing big checks.
Topping the list of the biggest individual contributors – Bill Knapp II
“I’ve always been an admirer of Mohammed Ali,” says Knapp as he shows us his autographed print of Ali. A former boxer himself, Knapp knows politics can be a rough sport too, one in which money can make all the difference.
From January 1, 2010 through September 30, 2012, Knapp, a West Des Moines real estate mogul, made $403,987.00 in political contributions.
“I can imagine they think the kind of money I give that I get about everything that I want, personally or whatever, but nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Knapp.
He adds, he doesn’t need anything, “I really don’t.”
But he does expect the candidates to which he gives, to support his causes, like helping the homeless and feeding the hungry.
“I think the people who do well owe a lot back,” says Knapp. “And so, if there’s anything I ever want to ask from a politician, it’s going to be to try to make things better for the state, the country or the people who are less fortunate.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the second biggest Iowa contributor, Alden’s Bruce Rastetter. He donated $402,766.76 during the same time period.
“That’s the main reason I give,” says Rastetter. “I think I’ve been very fortunate, worked hard to get there, I ought to give back.”
Rastetter has made millions in the agribusiness industry. He says he writes checks to candidates who share his beliefs.
“I’m concerned about the system, the direction of the system. The concern that we need to continue to elect people that are going to create high quality jobs, create a business climate in which we can employ people, grow the economy and grow the state and create opportunity for others like what I’ve had.”
In 2011, Governor Branstad gave Rastetter the opportunity to serve on the Iowa Board of Regents. But he says there’s no connection between the appointment and the $135,000 he donated to Branstad prior to the 2010 gubernatorial election.
“No, no – never,” says Rastetter. “I’ve always had an interest in education and trying to make a difference there.”
Rastetter’s contributions are followed by Ankeny developer, Denny Elwell. His contributions add up to $334,525.00
“I feel good about that,” says Elwell.
He calls himself a “bottom line guy” on finances. His donations are based in part on whether a candidate shares his fiscal philosophy.
“We’re giving money trying to elect people to help this state. The better the state runs, the better our company runs.”
Elwell also gives to candidates in other state, some of whom he’s never even met.
“In some situations we need change and I view it as, even though I don’t know the candidate, they’re trying to change a situation that I believe needs to be changed.”
Whether it’s a vote, an appointment or a road built on a contributors piece of land, it’s nearly impossible to prove exactly what donors get in return for their cash. Former politicians say it’s rare for someone to ask for something specific, but it does happen.
“I saw one occurrence, this is not a campaign contribution to me, but to a different entity, where a person wrote a very large check and had an expectation that the law was going to change,” says former legislator, Chuck Larson. “This particular donor was very angry and upset.”
Larson says contributors who expect favors are taking a risk, because writing a big check doesn’t guarantee a politician’s vote.
“What donors need to remember is there is no quid-pro-quo.”
But a big check will get you name recognition. Your calls will likely be returned and politicians are more likely to call you.
“I’m not gonna say they don’t pursue people like me for money,” says Elwell. “Because we will write a check if it’s something we have a heartbeat for.”
Knapp acknowledges he does get tired of the calls, but there’s a reason the phone keeps ringing.
“They remember who’s helped them out and they appreciate it and they’re grateful,” says Larson. “They have to raise a tremendous amount of money to be successful in races.”
That’s one thing the “big three” political donors agree on – there’s far too much money being spent on political campaigns.
“You know, it’s really ludicrous,” says Knapp. “Because all it does is divide us.”
“You feed into it, but both sides are feeding into it,” says Elwell. “You almost feel like you have to write a check.”
But what if you can’t write a check? Take it from a former politician, you don’t have to make a monetary contribution to make a difference.
“Volunteer, be active on a campaign, get to know your lawmaker,” suggests Larson. “They remember everyone that helps them.”