Iowa’s Top Political Donors Play On The National Level

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Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in Davenport, Iowa

Guannan Huang file photo/IowaWatch

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a Davenport, Iowa, rally during his 2012 campaign.

Iowans with deep pockets when it comes to making campaign donations are sending some of their money out of state, even to places where their contributions may seem like a drop in the bucket.

Bruce Rastetter, the state Board of Regents president and Iowa’s second most generous political donor from 2011 through June 30, 2014, gave $130,400 to candidates, parties and political action committees (PACs) outside of Iowa.

The total is found in data provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics and compiled and analyzed by the Investigative News Network for IowaWatch. It amounts to one third of the $359,540.32 Rastetter donated to political campaigns overall during that time period.

Like many donors, Rastetter spread his donations, with his largest single out-of-state contribution of $30,800 going to the Republican National Senatorial Committee (NRSC)—an organization that has raised $98 million this year alone, according to The Center for Responsive Politics’

power2-280“Most states are not going to have people who make eight-figure donations,” Russ Choma,’s money-in-politics reporter, said. He was referring to the kind of wealthy donor who can give unlimited funds through super PACs, like California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who has spent $58 million nationwide this year through his NextGen Climate Action Committee.

The McCutcheon v. FEC Supreme Court ruling in April struck down a federal limit of $123,200 in campaign contributions during a political cycle.

William C. Knapp – the retired chairman of Knapp Properties in Des Moines, a major Democratic Party benefactor and atop the list of Iowa’s top 10 political donors since 2011 – bucks the trend of sending a lot of money out of state. Almost all of the $376,050 he donated to candidates since 2011 remained in Iowa, campaign finance data show. An exception was $2,000 he gave to U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), data show.

Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political science associate professor, said it’s not unusual for various groups across the country to request money from donors once it becomes evident that they are willing to shell out the cash.

“What often happens, especially with the bigger donors, is they often will get asked for money for races that go beyond their home state,” Hagle said. “If you’ve given money in a presidential year then you’re basically on the list to get asked for money in other years as well.”

Those requests are not restricted to national parties. In some instances Iowa’s top political donors have contributed to state parties and out-of-state candidates for federal office. For example, four of Iowa’s top 10 donors gave money to the Republican Party of Idaho for a total of $33,202 in the last two election cycles dating back to 2011 giving.

James Cownie, the owner of JSC Properties, gave $8,550, while Denny Elwell and Kyle Krause gave $9,800 each and Thomas Moreland gave $5,052, data show.

Elwell is the chairman of the Denny Elwell Company, a real estate business; Krause is the chief executive officer of Kum & Go, and Moreland is chief executive officer at St. Jude Healthcare in Clive.

Those same four donors also gave $33,202 to the Vermont Republican Federal Elections Committee and $32,950 to the Oklahoma Leadership Council.

That’s because those states were part of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign’s joint fundraising committee, Romney Victory, which paired that election cycle’s presidential campaign with the RNC or DNC as well as with 10 state parties.

“The Republicans picked sort of an odd collection of states this time,” Choma said.

Dave Johnston, the Republican Party of Idaho’s executive director, said contributions from individuals in the thousands of dollars are not unusual for the state.

“In Idaho, the max contribution that an individual can give to a party is $10,000 per year,” he said.

“We do have a few people that come close to maxing out,” he added.

Johnston said he did not recognize the names of any of the Iowa donors, making it unlikely that they have close connections to the party organization in Idaho.

“In a presidential election year, even in a small state like Idaho, that’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Barbara Trish, professor and chair of political science at Grinnell College, said national fundraising networks attract donors with deep pockets because of the amounts they can contribute, which could explain why those from Iowa show up as contributing to what otherwise might seem to be unlikely political campaigns for Iowans to fund.

“It’s sort of a different contribution network,” Trish said. “It’s not the direct mail or the internet appeals. These are networks of big donors and fundraisers.”

Some donors have given to specific candidates in the 2011-14 time period examined for this report. Rastetter, for instance, has donated to Republicans amounts ranging from $2,600 to $7,500 each to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin), U.S. Rep. Steve Daines of Montana, 2014 U.S. senatorial candidates Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, as well as 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“Maybe you really think that there’s a competitive contest that you could affect with a sizeable contribution,” Trish said of these types of donations.

“They might think that it might really make the difference if the contests are particularly close,” she said.

Choma said statewide campaigns often focus on donors in that tier of givers because their contributions add up more quickly than smaller donations of a few dozen or a hundred dollars.

“Five thousand dollars does not make or break the race,” he said. “At the same time, campaigns rely on those $5,000 donations.”

Donors also may give to national groups to further the broader interests of their party, or in an attempt to influence policy in a tight election year, such as 2014.


Knapp and Fred Hubbell are the only top 10 Iowa political donors over the last three years who lean heavily Democratic, while Gregory Abel leans Republican but donates to Democrats as well, and Van G. Miller has contributed to both parties, the donation data show. The other six donors on the list of Iowa’s top 10 political donors are heavily Republican.

Donating to organizations like the National Republican Senatorial Committee or Republican National Committee rather than a specific candidate means supporting broader party goals and trusting that the party organization knows how to best distribute the funds, political experts who were interviewed said.

Republicans, for example, want to take control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats and are motivated to donate to that cause. “In some sense you can understand wanting to contribute to races even if you don’t seemingly have a connection,” Hagle said.


Federal campaign finance law limits individual contributions to $2,600 per election to a candidate, $32,000 per year to a national party committee, $10,000 per year to a state or local party and $5,000 per year to other political committees.

Beyond gaining an edge on public policy, though, some donations are not based on political calculus, Trish said. Rather, they are based on principle.

“Donors, activists, participants are sometimes driven by non-strategic purposes,” Trish said. “They’re making a statement with their money. I mean, they really think that this would be the right thing to do to push for a particular cause or particular candidate.”