Million-dollar super-PAC donation coming for Libertarian ticket

Million-dollar super-PAC donation coming for Libertarian ticket
© Getty Images

A tomato tycoon has promised the largest super-PAC donation in Libertarian Party history with his pledge to spend more than $1 million backing presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

Chris Rufer, the founder of California tomato processing company Morning Star, told The Hill he's going to give at least $1 million to an outside group supporting the Libertarian presidential ticket of Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, and his running mate Bill Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts. 

"We need to make this happen," said Rufer, a longtime funder of free market causes who has given $1.18 million to political action groups since 2012, according to the Federal Election Committee.

Rufer's $1 million donation would be the largest sum given to an outside group supporting a Libertarian Party candidate since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision paved the way for unlimited spending by independent groups in campaigns. 

In 2012, Johnson's two main allied super-PACs received a total of about $670,000 over the entire campaign cycle, according to non-partisan watchdog OpenSecrets. About $500,000 of that haul came from Rufer. 

Johnson badly needs the financial support. 

His campaign had less than $15,000 in cash on hand at the end of April, and he still owes more than $1.5 million from his 2012 campaign, according to FEC reports. 

Reached by phone on Tuesday evening, Johnson told The Hill "that's the first I've heard" of the Rufer donation.

"I do know Chris. I am not aware of this donation but he's always been very generous," Johnson said.

Asked whether he'd heard about other large donations coming, Johnson said he'd heard rumors but nothing certain.

"There were lots of conversations that if I was the nominee and if Bill Weld was the nominee then there would be a lot of people interested ... and that has happened," Johnson said. 

Johnson said he’s glad he has Weld on his ticket because he said the former Massachusetts governor has proved to be a far better political fundraiser than himself.

Johnson raised just $2.3 million through his last bid for president, which is a fraction of what's needed to run a competitive presidential campaign. 

When all outside money is taken into account, Clinton and Trump — and their allies — will likely have spent more than $1 billion each in the general election. 

Johnson communications director Joe Hunter said in an email that the campaign's poor cash position at the end of April had significantly improved.

"Obviously, the run-up to the [Libertarian Party] Convention involved significant outlays," Hunter said. "Since Sunday, contributions are coming in at a healthy rate, especially online."

Rufer, a donor in the powerful network led by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, told The Hill in a separate interview last week he sees an unusual opportunity this cycle — in which the two major parties are represented by deeply unpopular candidates — to expand the libertarian messages of free markets and limited government to new audiences.

While the opportunity is real — distaste for Clinton and Trump is widespread among political mega donors on both sides — it's difficult to assess the amount of money potentially available to the Johnson-Weld ticket.

Even Rufer admits to having doubts about their abilities as messengers.

"I wish they were more charismatic," he said. "But they are good folks. Nobody can say they are klutzes."

Rufer paused.

"Well, I am sure some people could say they are klutzes, but they are strong folks. It's an opportunity to make some noise and get the message out."

One obvious pool of potentially interested donors would be the super-PACs that supported the failed presidential run of libertarian-leaning Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year Despite amnesty, DACA bill favors American wage-earners MORE, a Kentucky senator. Those groups raised about $10 million, according to OpenSecrets.

Another potentially rich vein is the Koch network — a group of some 700 donors who support different candidates but broadly agree on the principles that government should spend and tax less.

David Koch has denied a news media report that he's willing to spend "tens of millions" on the Johnson ticket. But some of his donors are favorably disposed to the Libertarian nominee.

"I have already sent a bit of money to Gary Johnson, and if he is the Libertarian candidate, will likely send more," said James Von Ehr, a Texas nanotech entrepreneur and member of the Koch network, in an email to The Hill last week.

But Von Ehr, like many other savvy donors, is brutally realistic about the limits of spending money on a presidential candidate. 

"I’m not interested enough in presidential politics to send big bucks to any super-PAC, so will limit my contributions," he said. 

"I have learned that supporting a candidate who sounds principled before the election rarely results in one who remains principled after they get in office."

Outside groups are now scrambling to position themselves as the go-to vehicles for the Libertarian outside cash.

Rufer said he's now weighing which super-PAC or non-profit should receive his pro-Johnson money. 

Two groups he's considering are Purple PAC, a super-PAC run by Cato Institute founder Ed Crane that previously supported Paul's presidential campaign, and the non-profit group Free the People, led by Matt Kibbe, who supported a different super-PAC backing Paul.

Crane confirmed on Tuesday he would be rebooting the pro-Paul super-PAC and turning it into a pro-Johnson vehicle.

"We are kind of dusting off the Purple PAC. ... I think there's a lot of money out there," Crane said.

"A lot of people are saying they don't like Trump, but they don't like Hillary either," he added. "We are going to get money from the left, from wealthy liberals appalled at the thought of Hillary."

Crane said if Johnson gets more than 15 percent in polls and makes it on to the debate stage with Clinton and Trump, he could see his group raising the tens of millions needed to compete effectively against the major parties. 

Johnson may also receive financial support from the unlikeliest source: A former fierce competitor.

Austin Petersen, a former TV producer who ran aggressively against Johnson for the Libertarian nomination, told The Hill on Tuesday that he'd "buried the hatchet" with Johnson since the weekend's convention and was now ready to start up a non-profit group or a super-PAC to swing his grassroots network behind the Libertarian ticket.

"Assuming my activists are interested," he added.