intro: Money has always been one of the more significant parts of elections, although the 2012 cycle has kept campaign finance lawyers, experts and critics busy because of the introduction of so-called super PACs. These political groups can raise as much money as they want, and then spend unlimited amounts on ads to sway the election toward the candidates they support.
Super PACs can be lifeboats for some candidates who have trouble raising money the old-fashioned way (soliciting donations while being bound by legal limits). In some cases, the aid of a single rich benefactor can help an underdog candidate win a state's primary.
This is a guide to some of the most generous donors to super PACs.
quicklist: 1 title: Joe Ricketts url: 15479174 text: Ricketts is a lot of things: founder of TD Ameritrade, crusader against earmarks, bison meat tycoon, owner of the Chicago Cubs, hyper-local news dabbler and conservative political player, among other things.
Recently, Ricketts was thrust into the national spotlight after a plan for an expensive ad buy that tied President Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was leaked to the New York Times. Through his own super PAC, Ricketts disapproved of the tactic and disowned responsibility for the plan.
Ricketts is a libertarian, according to his brother, Jim Ricketts, who runs a group that teaches poor students in troubled areas around the world. Much of the money for the group, Opportunity Education, comes from Joe Ricketts, who gives $5 million every year, his brother said.
Politics runs in the Ricketts family, though not in the same direction. His son Peter ran for Senate and works for the Republican National Committee. His daughter supports the Obama campaign. Ricketts's grandfather was the mayor of a small town in Nebraska. His brother ran for office in Colorado, and his brother's son is on a school board.
Many Democrats are probably already familiar with Ricketts' fingerprint on campaigns. The Ending Spending Fund super PAC spent more than $250,000 in the recent Senate primary in Nebraska, supporting the eventual surprise winner, Deb Fischer.
Before that, he donated more than $1 million to the fund in the 2010 midterm elections.
In his charge against congressional spending, Ricketts said in a video that lawmakers who get earmarks for their districts are "hooligans."
quicklist: 2 title: John Paulson and Edward Conard url: 15479174 text: It's no surprise that the two biggest donors supporting Mitt Romney have a background similar to the candidate's. The self-made, hedge-fund master John Paulson, pictured here, and the investment banking director Edward Conard have so far donated $1 million each to Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney.
Forbes lists Paulson, 55, as the 18th-richest person in the country. He bet big against the housing market in 2007 and walked away with $3.5 billion. He broke a record in the hedge-fund industry in 2010 by earning $4.9 billion, although the next year he lost a lot of money by making bad bets on Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard. So far this year, he has done better, possibly because he has put his money on the chance that the economy will recover.
Although his $1 million to the Romney-backing PAC puts him at the top of the biggest givers, it's but a particle of a fraction of his net worth, which is $15.5 billion.
"We contribute to candidates and organizations that support U.S. economic growth and leadership," Paulson said in a statement to ABC News.
Conard, 54, has a direct link to Romney through their past: He was a managing director at the private-equity firm Bain Capital, which Romney founded, from 1993 to 2007. (Romney left Bain in 1998.)
Conard identified himself in August as the previously unknown person who gave $1 million to Restore Our Future through a newly created company, W Spann LLC. Two campaign finance groups that advocate for disclosure, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, had asked the FEC and the Justice Department to investigate the matter while Conard's donation was anonymous, underscoring the secretive nature of super PACs.
quicklist: 3 title: Bob Perry url: 15479174 text: In the 2004 cycle, a group called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" claimed that John Kerry was exaggerating his military service in Vietnam, becoming infamous for negative advertising and bringing about the term "swiftboating." The biggest donor to that group was Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, whose company, Perry Homes, contributed $4.45 million.
Now, Perry is giving to the pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future (he has given $500,000 so far), although he has also sent $2.5 million this cycle to American Crossroads, the political "527" group that was the brainchild of Republican strategist-mastermind Karl Rove and former Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie. Perry gave American Crossroads $7 million in 2010.
American Crossroads, which acts like a super PAC, technically supports no candidate but rather spends money on ads savaging President Obama.
Perry has also given part of his fortune to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Governors Association and individual candidates, including Romney, Tim Pawlenty and members of Congress.
Unlike some donors who seek center stage, Perry appears to enjoy shaping the political landscape from behind the curtain. "He never comes to anything," GOP operative Fred Malek told the New York Times in 2010. "I've never met him or seen him at any of our events that feature our governors, so he certainly is not seeking access."
quicklist: 4 title: Sheldon Adelson url: 15479174 text: Unfathomably rich casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson has been in the news lately because of his wife's $5 million donation to a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich. She contributed the money after Adelson gave the PAC, Winning Our Future, another $5 million just before the South Carolina primary, which Gingrich incidentally dominated.
Adelson and Gingrich are said to have bonded years ago over their passion for supporting Israel, as Congress debated a bill that encouraged the move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "He admires and likes Newt for his intellect and his creativity, and those are two traits that are very strong with Sheldon himself," Robert List, a former governor of Nevada who was Adelson's legal counsel when he acquired the historic Sands Hotel, told ABC News.
The Adelsons' boost to Gingrich's candidacy can't be underestimated. With $10 million from them alone, Winning Our Future has had a bountiful stream of cash to run ads against Romney, particularly spots that depict him as soft on abortion, hurting the front-runner among religious voters in South Carolina. So far, the pro-Gingrich PAC has spent almost $9 million total.
ABC News reported this week that for a year, the Justice Department and the SEC have been investigating whether Adelson's casino company bribed foreign officials and has been involved with organized crime groups in China.
quicklist: 5 title: Foster Friess url: 15479174 text: The candidate with the least amount of help from a super PAC is Rick Santorum. The PAC backing him -- Red, White and Blue -- has spent about $2 million, far behind even the candidates who have dropped out.
The guardian angel funding the colorful PAC is Foster Friess, a 71-year-old donor to Republican causes who made his millions investing on Wall Street.
Santorum's bubble hasn't completely burst since his win in Iowa, but it's shrunk significantly, and he hasn't come close to winning a primary since then. Friess told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to pay for ads through March to help keep the struggling candidate alive.
"I've known him for 16 years on a personal basis," Friess told Bloomberg last week. "I'm excited to be stacked up with Sheldon Adelson and Mr. Huntsman in terms of people contributing to these three PACs. ... I believe Rick Santorum's going to become one of the front-runners very soon."
quicklist: 6 title: Jeffrey Katzenberg url: 15479174 text: Yes, the Democrats have a super PAC, too, despite Obama's public statements denigrating the outside political groups as corrupt elements of the political system. Obama's super PAC was started by two of his former White House aides, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, and so far it has raised more than $3 million but spent a little more than $300,000.
Although the president is capable enough of raising staggering amounts of money, he also has a key benefactor propping up his super PAC: Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation. Katzenberg, a longtime Democratic donor, has so far given $2 million to the PAC, Priorities USA Action.
In the 2008 cycle, as he raised millions for Obama, the Hollywood producer told The Washington Post, "It is the single easiest fundraising phone call that I have ever made, ever."
Representatives for Katzenberg didn't respond to a request for a comment on fundraising this time around.
The Hollywood Reporter revealed recently that as Congress debated the anti-piracy bills that prompted many websites to shut themselves down in protest, and which the White House eventually opposed, Katzenberg got a call from Chris Dodd, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Dodd, according to the report, wanted to "find out about the thinking inside the White House."
quicklist: 7 title: The Koch brothers url: 15479174 text: David and Charles Koch were the subjects of a host of stories in 2010 for their funding of a PAC that heavily supported Republicans in the midterm elections. The group, Americans for Prosperity, is a 501(c)4, which means it doesn't disclose its donors, and spent $1.3 million on "electioneering communications."
In total, the "communications" from the Kochs' PAC mentioned 45 candidates, mostly Democrats whom they portrayed negatively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Koch brothers have pushed almost $3 million at swaying elections toward Republicans since 1990, and employees and PACs associated with their energy conglomerate, Koch Industries, have contributed $12 million to candidates and parties.
The Kochs, who are in their 70s, also have deep ties to the Tea Party movement. In August 2010, The New Yorker quoted a Republican consultant who did research for the brothers as saying of the Tea Party: "The Koch brothers gave the money that founded it. It's like they put the seeds in the ground. Then the rainstorm comes, and the frogs come out of the mud, and they're our candidates."
Described often as secretive billionaires, they are said to be worth about $25 billion, each. And they are reportedly planning to direct more than $200 million into the 2012 cycle, with help from other rich conservatives.
quicklist: 8 title: George Soros url: 15479174 text: The name George Soros comes up a lot, and mostly by conservatives who try to paint Democrats as reliant on the billionaire investor's wealth. He was a common feature of Glenn Beck's conspiracy-theory chalkboard, and on ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday, for example, Gingrich mentioned his palindromic name three times.
Soros, 81, is worth about $22 billion, and he has given millions of dollars to Democratic causes. His hedge fund has holdings of more than $4 billion.
He gained notoriety in 1992 by "breaking" the Bank of England, meaning that as the bank raised interest rates on one day, Soros bet on the currency and made $1 billion. That earned him a laurel for being a premier "currency speculator."
Unlike the Kochs, who typically stay behind closed doors, Soros likes to stir the pot. Gingrich kept citing Soros in his interview on GMA because of what the Hungarian-American told Reuters last week, portraying Romney as a non-conservative: "Well, look, either you'll have an extremist conservative, be it Gingrich or Santorum, in which case I think it will make a big difference which of the two comes in. If it's between Obama and Romney, there isn't all that much difference except for the crowd that they bring with them."