Karl Rove hits big: The birth of a mega-donor

The billion-dollar buy | POLITICO Staff

The Billion-Dollar Buy: About this series
Like never before, big dollars are having a big impact on politics and governance. This series examines how the new wide-open fundraising landscape will affect the 2012 campaigns.
See also: Inside Koch world | GOP groups plan record $1 billion blitz


In the new Wild West of giving and getting campaign money, the marriage of casino mogul Steve Wynn and political guru Karl Rove was an exceptionally powerful — and secretive — one.

Wynn, the flamboyant Las Vegas billionaire who claims to have voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, was the perfect get for Rove. Wynn was loaded, had soured on Obama and was just the kind of wealthy businessman who could help underwrite a plan hatched by Rove and other influential conservatives to spend close to $1 billion total to win the White House, Senate and House in 2012. Wynn, a registered Democrat until recently, was reluctant to attach his name to any high-dollar gambles on the GOP, worried that Obama’s allies would make him a bogeyman. So Rove — who helped develop Crossroads GPS in 2010, one of a growing roster of non-profit groups that can now accept unlimited contributions for hard-hitting political ads — was a perfect get for Wynn, too. Rove knows all the players — and the groups he works with are skilled at minimizing media attention to their financial whales.

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Wynn admits to voting for Obama

The courting, which took place in direct conversations and through friends and allies of both men, produced big results. Wynn has kicked in millions to Crossroads GPS, according to multiple sources.

And Rove, who attended Wynn’s gala wedding last year in Vegas, recently got something of a personal bonus out of the relationship. After Wynn attended the veteran operative’s wedding last month in Austin — an intimate and until-now unreported affair also attended by former President George W. Bush — Rove and his new wife Karen Johnson flew to Naples, Italy, aboard Wynn’s Boeing 737 — a nearly 11-hour, 6,000-mile trip that could cost tens of thousands of dollars from a charter jet carrier. Wynn joined Rove in Italy.

This story, stitched together by talking to numerous people familiar with the Rove-Wynn courtship, as well as a review of federal records, illustrates how one of the biggest changes to politics in a generation — the explosion of unlimited secret money — really works.

(PHOTOS: Republican money men)

Simply put: any person, corporation or union can spend as much as they want to directly influence elections through hard-hitting television ads without anyone else knowing. Republicans and their allies have had exceptional success exploiting this dynamic, which really took off after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

Think of the conservatives as matchmakers of sorts: Avenues for secret political spending would be meaningless if it weren’t for rich folks like Wynn with the means and desire to write huge checks to influence politics and governance. But they also need operatives like Rove and his interwoven group of allies to guide the mega-donors through the clubby and byzantine world of big-money politics.

The political team Wynn assembled in the last few years to facilitate his political escalation is a case in point. His lobbyist Charlie Spies co-founded the Restore Our Future super PAC to boost Mitt Romney’s GOP presidential campaign. Another co-founder was Carl Forti, the political director of Crossroads GPS.

Spies and Forti worked together on Romney’s 2008 campaignalong with Wynn’s corporate government affairs director Mike Britt, who worked in George W. Bush’s political shop under Rove.

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