If conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts does go ahead with his proposed attack plan against President Obama, it wouldn't be the first time he has opened his wallet in the name of Republican causes.
Ricketts, the founder and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, finds himself in the national spotlight after the New York Times reported he would spend $10 million on personal attacks against Obama this year. Though this may be the first time he's made headlines, Ricketts has a history of using his largesse very effectively to tip elections towards Republican candidates.
Ending Spending Action Fund, the Super PAC funded entirely by Ricketts, has spent more than $1.3 million since 2010 influencing elections, all of it benefitting Republican candidates, according to federal election filings.
Like a closer in baseball brought on in the ninth inning to seal a victory, the group's moves have come just days before voters head to the polls, and only once has it failed to ensure victory.
The group entered the political landscape in October 2010, forming a month before the midterm elections. By mid-October, it had nearly $1.2 million in the bank, all from Ricketts. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the money was gone. By October 22, all but $10,000 was spent opposing incumbent Democrats in four Congressional races across the country. Three of them fell in the election two weeks later.
One of those was Democrat Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the chairman of the House Budget committee. By Election Day, Ricketts would dump $187,000 into the race—a game-changing sum in a rural district with no major television markets or newspapers. Spratt lost the race to Republican Mick Mulvaney by 10 points.
"It was like a tidal wave," Spratt says. "Suddenly constituents were calling saying they were getting five pieces of mail a day towards the end, on all kinds of topics."
On September 30, the last federal campaign finance deadline before the election, Mulvaney reported having less than $600,000 on hand, having spent more than half of what he had raised.
"Whoever spent that outside money I think deliberately waited until after the Sept. 30 deadline," says Spratt. "I expected a little—my opponent had raised a modest sum—but nothing like what happened. That came out of nowhere."
The only Democrat to win in spite of Ricketts' money was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spent $26 million on his re-election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a sum not available to most candidates.
"Joe Ricketts is prepared to spend significant resources in the 2012 election in both the presidential race and Congressional races," Brian Baker, the president of Ending Spending Action Fund, told the New York Times.
Calls to Ending Spending Action Fund were not returned by post time.
Ricketts' effect on elections resumed this year, in the race to fill the seat vacated by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. In 2006, Nelson defeated Rickett's son Pete, winning re-election despite raising only half as much as the challenger. But that was 2006, before the advent of Super PACs, which allow benefactors like Ricketts to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.
"It used to be those who are so endowed that they can dump huge amounts in elections had limits," says Spratt. "The Citizens United case has opened a huge floodgate, and this is just the beginning. We're going to rue the day it did."
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Seth Cline is a reporter for US News and World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.