By Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig - 01/02/16 12:01 PM EST
News articles concerning the most influential political donors in America typically list the same names: Charles and David Koch, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson and, lately, Tom Steyer.
But as we reach the end of 2015, none of these billionaires has spent big in the 2016 contest, at least not at an individual-candidate level. In their absence, a number of lesser-known donors are shaping up to be major players in 2016.
Here are five to watch:
1. The DeVos family
We’re cheating by including a whole family in our list, but there is no way of dividing this high-spending political unit, which made its fortune from billionaire patriarch Richard DeVos Sr., co-founder of the direct-selling company Amway.
Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses. An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses — two other major conservative donor families.
2. Farris Wilks
If Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump: Cruz, Kasich shouldn't speak at convention without endorsement Colorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open O'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' MORE wins the Republican presidential nomination he will owe a major debt of gratitude to the billionaire pastor Farris Wilks and his family, which made their fortune from fracking.
Until 2015, Wilks, who leads the Assembly of Yahweh, 7th Day, in Cisco, Texas, and his brother Daniel had made zero impression in the world of big money politics. Federal Election Commission records show that Daniel had donated not a penny to any federal candidate, and Farris had only given $61,620.
But in 2015 these brothers, reportedly inspired by their social conservative values, made donations to Cruz’s super-PAC, which immediately announced them as two of the highest-capacity check writers in conservative politics. Between Farris, Daniel and their two wives, they have so far been reported giving $15 million to Keep the Promise III.
While Cruz’s super-PACs have spent very little to date, their unexpectedly large bank accounts gave other establishment donors early confidence that Cruz was a serious candidate who could raise money both from grassroots donors into his campaign and from large donors into his super-PACs.
Cruz’s combination of high- and low-end donors is unique in the current Republican field and positions him to compete right through the nominating season.
3. Mel Heifetz
Mel Heifetz, a multimillionaire Philadelphia real estate investor, is unusual among donors, in that he genuinely does not crave access to the politicians he supports. Instead, Heifetz has a reputation as a passionate, idealistic man who will write huge checks if he feels inspired by the candidate, and that enough is at stake.
When The Hill interviewed him in late September, Heifetz said he “fell in love” with President Obama back in 2008. He followed with a $1 million check to President Obama’s super-PAC last election.
Heifetz had not felt similarly inspired by Clinton, but on Wednesday he told The Hill in an email that "it looks like I'll be supporting Hillary in the coming weeks."
Heifetz, who cares about no issue more than gay rights, added, "I have seen no others that might have a chance to win and don't plan learning to refer to Trump as Mr. President."
4. John Jordan
When the pro-Rubio super-PAC “Baby Got PAC” announced its arrival in November, the immediate reaction was laughter. But when operatives realized who was behind the comically named outfit they had no choice but to take it seriously.
Unlike most donors who write a big check and maybe dial into the odd conference call or offer off-the-cuff advice, John Jordan, a California winery owner, is known as a hands-on political nerd who obsesses over polling data, the mechanics of media and messaging.
Over the past two years, Florida-based ad-maker Rick Wilson and Jordan have created some of the more adventurous advertising in campaigns, including a 60-second spot in 2014 called “Dating Profile” that went viral. Wilson said the strategy behind that ad — which involves a woman talking about the man she once loved, President Obama, letting her down — was to turn the left’s “war on women” language against itself.
Baby Got PAC has only released one ad so far this presidential campaign, but if history is any guide, Jordan and Wilson will cause plenty of trouble in 2016.
5. Bill Koch
Endless ink is dedicated to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch — and fairly so, given that they run the most powerful donor network in conservative politics. But what about their lesser-known brother Bill?
Bill Koch, who spent much of his life engaged in painful legal battles with his brothers, detached from Koch Industries decades ago and is very much his own man. Koch is a business owner, the founder of Oxbridge Academy high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., and, through his own investment, won the America’s Cup yacht race in 1992.
While Charles and David Koch are staying out of the Republican primaries, Bill is getting involved, and he is doing it in his own unpredictable style. Despite having a history of supporting GOP candidates — he gave $250,000 to Mitt Romney’s super-PAC in 2012 — Koch has already donated the maximum $2,700 to struggling Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley. And yet he is also holding a fundraiser for Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary MORE (R-Fla.) at his Palm Beach mansion in January.
Through a spokeswoman, Koch told The Hill that the reason that he gave O’Malley the donation was because he likes the governor and appreciated the hospitality O’Malley showed when Koch had an exhibition of his artwork at the U.S. Naval Academy.
As for his larger intentions in the 2016 presidential race, Koch was coy. “It will be very interesting how it turns out.”