Supporters rally in Iowa City for President Barack Obama. (IowaWatch photo by Emily Hoerner)

An influential group of Iowans may have a significant impact on who the next U.S. president is with, at least when compared to what big donors in other states give, pennies on the barrel.

While donations like the total $199,600 Knapp Properties’ Chairman Emeritus William C. Knapp has given Democrats in 2011 and 2012 to campaign for state and federal offices may seem like a lot, they pale in comparison to what big donors in other states, like Hollywood movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg’s more than $2 million to Democratic super PACs, are giving.

Still, Iowa’s top donors may do a better of job of getting voters to the polls in what is considered to be a swing state in this presidential election because their money is staying in Iowa and being used to motivate its voters, political science experts told IowaWatch.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science and public policy professor at Iowa State University, said the quantity of donors, rather than the amount of their donations, matters most because each small donation likely means one vote.

“The Koch brothers may be giving millions of dollars, but each Koch brother only has one vote,” Schmidt said, referring to the billionaire brothers from Wichita, Kan., who fund conservative and libertarian organizations. And, of course, that vote wouldn’t be cast in Iowa.

Political money has become a major theme in this year’s election season with the rise of super PACs and other vehicles for so-called “soft money.”

Megan Stiles, spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party, said receiving a steady flow of donations is critical toward keeping campaign offices open throughout the state and mobilization efforts to help Republican candidates get elected.

She added that this year will be the Republican Party’s biggest “ground game” in Iowa, with a party record of 12 offices throughout the state. She said the party has made more voter contacts this election cycle,  knocking on 10 times as many doors at this point in comparison to 2008.

“Our state is in play,” Tim Hagle, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa, said. That is true, he said, even though Iowa is small and with only six electoral votes because of its swing-state status in an election that is expected to be close.

Knapp emerges as Iowa’s top federal campaign donor

Knapp, of Des Moines, emerged as Iowa’s top donor to state and federal campaigns in an analysis of  2011 and 2012 Federal Election Commission  and Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure data by the Investigative News Network, IowaWatch and several other non-profit, non-partisan news agencies.

Knapp has been a consistent Democratic supporter in Iowa politics, and most of the money he donated went to the state’s party. He gave $56,100 to individual candidates running for Iowa House and Senate: $50,500 to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, and $250 to John Calhoun, a Polk City Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Iowa Senate in a special election in 2011. But Knapp also gave $5,350 to Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines.

An Obama supporter holds a sign at the rally for President Obama in Iowa City. (IowaWatch photo by Emily Hoerner)

Knapp also has donated $12,500 to Democratic congressional candidates, led by $5,000 to 3rd District U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell and $5,000 to Iowa 4th congressional candidate Christie Vilsack. [Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the wrong William Knapp as the donor. This is a corrected story.]

After Knapp, Iowa’s Top 10 campaign donors in the analysis are:

2) Bruce Rastetter, Iowa Falls, CEO of Summit Group, co-founder of Hawkeye Energy Holdings and Iowa Board of Regents member — $173,300, favoring Republicans.

3) James Cownie, Des Moines, owner at JSC Properties — $117,565, primarily Republican.

4) Frederick Hubbell, Des Moines, retired executive board member of ING Group — $114,275.

5) Gregory Abel, West Des Moines, chairman, president and CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. — $97,738, primarily Republican.

6) Gerald Kirke, West Des Moines, chairman and founder of Wild Rose Entertainment — $92,850, primarily Republican.

7) Van G. Miller, Waterloo, CEO and founder of VGM Group — $78,900, primarily Republican.

8) Fred Weitz, West Des Moines, retired chief executive of Weitz Co. and CEO at Essex Meadows — $77,810, primarily Democratic.

9) Denny Elwell, Ankeny, chairman of the board at Denny Elwell Co. — $71,000, primarily Republican.

10) John Smith, chairman of the board at CRST International, Cedar Rapids — $70,600, primarily Republican.

Iowa’s Top 30 Political Campaign Donors to Federal and State Campaigns 2011-2012
(as of July 2012)

Out of state donations to Iowa

Though a majority of Iowa money is coming from within the state, a handful of individuals from throughout the country have been pumping money to state candidates.

Susan Groff, who owns a construction equipment rental company called Northwest Excavating in California, has donated $15,000 to the state’s Republican Party over the past two years. Though Groff could not be reached for comment on what motivated her to donate the money, those with the party’s state office say it’s common for the party to receive large donations from other states, particularly when Iowa is a battleground state.

“Some Republicans, in say, California, will donate to help the Republican Party (in Iowa) because they feel it will go further than if they donate where they live in a more Democratic state,” Stiles said. “But in terms of seeking out-of-state donations, we haven’t really been doing that.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign van swinging through Iowa City in September 2012. (IowaWatch photo by Lyle Muller) Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Stiles, who declined to talk about specific donors, said Iowa’s party headquarters frequently gets an influx of out-of-state donations following the Republican national convention.

Big out-of-state donations to Iowa’s Republican congressional candidates and the state party also came from Florida, Michigan, Texas, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Wealthy out-of-state Democrats have chipped in as well, including Colorado software entrepreneur and gay rights activist Tim Gill. Gill has given $25,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party in a year when The Family Leader, a social conservative group, is running a bus tour to oust Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who ruled in favor of legalizing same sex marriage in 2009.

The Democrats also have received donations from Chicago millionaire Fred Eychaner, who gave $25,000 to Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal in September 2011. That donation made him the largest single contributor to Gronstal’s campaign.

Related story: Christie Vilsack draws A-list support from out of state

The motivation behind the money

Iowa’s top 10 donors gave the national Republican Party $245,100 and the national Democratic Party $77,750, the data show. They gave Republican candidates for federal office $140,300 and Democratic candidates $73,150.

The Iowa Straw Poll in Ames is viewed as a major fundraising event for Republicans seeking the presidential nomination. Photo from 2011’s event. (IowaWatch file photo)

Weitz gave $1,100 to a Democratic 527 organization but he was the only one in Iowa’s top 10. None in the group gave to a super PAC, data supplied by the Investigative News Network show.

Weitz conceded that his wealth likely provides him with an unfair advantage when it comes to political clout. He donates to Democrats but said he doesn’t feel he abuses the system as some donors do.

“I clearly I can talk to Leonard Boswell. I could talk to Chet Culver when he was governor. And I’m not saying they don’t want to talk to other people who don’t give as much money, but certainly, it’s easier for me,” Weitz said. “But clearly it can be abused by a lot of people, and now, protecting corporations, I don’t think that’s the right way for our democracy to function.”

Harry Bookey, whose BH Equities is a property management services company, said his donations are tied to policy, not seeking favors. “I’ve never asked anybody for anything. So, in that regard, I just believe that the Democrats have better answers than the Republicans do right now,” he said.

He said he considers himself a moderate, altruistic giver who, in recent years, has felt more comfortable aligning with the Democratic Party because of its policies on to immigration, government regulation and social issues.

Bookey, whose company is in 18 states, has donated $16,000 to federal Democratic candidates, including $5,000 to President Barack Obama; $4,500 to 1st District Rep. Bruce Braley; $4,000 to Boswell for his race against U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, in the reconfigured 3rd District; $1,500 to 2nd District Rep. Dave Loebsack and $1,000 to 4th District challenger Vilsack.

Joe Murphy, director of public affairs for Summit Group, initially agreed to a Rastetter interview with IowaWatch about the donations but said later Rastetter, the state’s top donor to Republicans, would be unable to participate because he was traveling.

Campaign finance reform as an election issue

A January 2012 poll administered by the Pew Research Center indicates that 78 percent of the people aware of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision — which prevents the federal government from restricting the election donations of corporations — think it has had a negative impact on campaigns.

And while those on the political left have criticized the political right for taking money from super PACs, particularly during this year’s Republican primaries and the Iowa caucus campaign, ISU’s Schmidt said many have come to understand that both parties can benefit from taking big money. Any politicians who choose not to accept it spell their own doom, Schmidt said.

Because of that, politicians will not enact campaign finance reform because it doesn’t benefit them, he said.

Morever, the political debate over campaign financing is not likely to subside anytime soon. “Neither of the two parties want campaign finance reform because it limits what they’re able to do each year,” Schmidt said. “So it’s a fallacy to think the people who could write and implement finance reform also want finance reform.”

Iowa’s status as a battleground state

Schmidt said electing the president is not a federal election, but a state-by-state election because of the Electoral College. “And so the money that is contributed by Iowa is more important, largely because most of it is probably going to actually be used in Iowa,” Schmidt said.

Compare that to California, where DreamWorks co-founder Katzenberg donated his millions to Democratic super PACs despite the notion that California is considered to be safe for Obama.

“It’s still a lot of money,” said Kyle Klondik, director of communications for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Maybe Iowa doesn’t have the same level of super rich people (as other states) and maybe that explains it.

Time Hagle
Tim Hagle

“I think you have to look at it per capita,” Klondik added. “Iowa is not a particularly huge state.”

Regardless, the UI’s Hagle said Iowa likely will continue to receive an unprecedented amount of attention.

“As candidates figure out which states they need to get to 270 to be the majority, the big states will fall one way or another way. And it may come down to a handful of very small states, us included,” Hagle said.

Big Donors Give Far and Wide, Influence Out-of-State Races and Issues, from the Investigative News Network

Who are the biggest donors to campaigns and political causes?

For the first time, independent non-profit newsrooms across the country joined with data experts to identify who has spent the most bankrolling the federal, state and local races where you live.

This is an on-going project of the Investigative News Network with data analysis and reporting by:, I-News Network in Colorado, the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in Massachusetts,, the St. Louis Beacon in Missouri and the Vermont Digger.

* * *

For this story, the Center for Responsive Politics analyzed donations to candidates, parties, PACs, super PACs, and 527 organizations in each of the selected states based on data released electronically by the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. The Institute on Money in State Politics analyzed donations to candidates and parties in the same states based on data reported to state disclosure agencies.

The organizations merged their data to come up with the major campaign finance players in California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Individual federal donors do not include contributions from family members and exclude contributions from candidates to themselves.

Reporters supplemented the data with other contributions, such as those to state PACs, in some instances. IowaWatch included state PAC donations in its reporting.

Because of inconsistent disclosure reporting periods, the timeliness of the data varies. Federal and Iowa’s state data are current as of July 2012.

* * *


Big Donors Give Far and Wide, Influence Out-of-State Races and Issues, from the Investigative News Network


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