WASHINGTON — Since first setting eyes on the White House, Mitt Romney and his backers have spent over $200 million — including $44.6 million of his fortune — on a seven-year quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now, with victories that re-establish him as the front-runner heading into Super Tuesday's crucial balloting, the former private equity chief can credit much of his advantage to an expansive fundraising apparatus that's far outdistanced those of his rivals.
Romney, an ex-Massachusetts governor, also can thank former business partners and friends in and around Wall Street who've been among his earliest and biggest donors.
A look back shows the depth of Romney's investment in trying to win the nation's highest office, how his supporters circumvented federal campaign laws with huge, back-channel donations years before he declared his candidacy and who the benefactors are whom he might owe favors if he wins.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
In this, his second run for the presidency, Romney's campaign has spent $54 million through Jan. 31, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. It has been shadowed by a pro-Romney "super" political action committee (PAC) that's laid out at least $32 million, including $12 million on broadcast ads in February, mainly to pummel GOP challenger Rick Santorum.
Beginning in 2004, an array of other state and federal pro-Romney committees sprang up to spend millions on staff salaries and on political consultants, while creating a sort of patronage system that spread cash to politicians whose endorsements he coveted.
"When you look at his operation, you end up with two words: Romney, Inc.," said Fred Wertheimer, the dean of Washington campaign finance watchdogs as president of the nonpartisan group Democracy 21. '"It's as if Mitt Romney is integrating his business experience in the investment banking world into the political world and creating multiple ways in which to advance his presidency.
"This is a highly sophisticated, far-reaching money operation designed to curry favor with politicians and local and state political organizations, and it's financed by donors who are bound to have great influence with Mitt Romney if he's elected president."
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney's campaign, rejected such assertions and said that the state committees "were completely separate entities having nothing to do with this campaign."
"We follow the letter and the spirit of the law," she said.
She declined to comment on details of Romney's fundraising, but said that "more than 125,000 Americans" have contributed to his campaign because they support his desire to make America "prosperous and secure."
Small donors, however, have played a marginal role in backing Romney. Through Jan. 31, his campaign collected more than 79 percent of its cash from those who gave $1,000 or more.
Romney's fundraising operation has included:
_ The committees formed in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states beginning in 2004, skirting the $2,500 federal campaign donation limit long before court rulings unleashed a torrent of six- and seven-figure presidential campaign checks this year. The state committees raised more than $8 million and bankrolled pollsters, staffers and political consultants back in Massachusetts, where Romney's campaign would later be based. They also doled out more than $1 million to local and state politicians — largesse that wasn't always rewarded.
_ The Free and Strong America federal political action committee, which was organized to mirror the leadership PACs set up by scores of members of Congress. Since 2007, this PAC has raised $14 million, much of which funded Romney's profile-raising travel and political machinery before he became a candidate. The committee also has donated $1.2 million to Republicans holding or seeking congressional seats — $772,000 to 257 recipients in the 2010 election cycle alone.
_ Romney's presidential campaign, a fixture dating to Jan. 3, 2007, when he launched his first presidential bid, spent $105 million, including $44.6 million of his own money, in losing the GOP nomination to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Among the biggest donors to the current campaign, which has raised $62 million so far, have been executives of the Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney co-founded.
_ Restore Our Future, the independent super PAC run on behalf of Romney that has to date reported raising $36.8 million from a few dozen large donors, including $3 million from Romney's former Bain colleagues and their wives. The committee has become the chief vehicle for bankrolling broadcast ads attacking Romney's rivals in primary states.
Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, said the record illustrates that "Romney has been aggressively pursuing ... and exploiting" loopholes in federal and state campaign fundraising laws.
Since Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race, none of Romney's GOP opponents has been able to compete with his $100 million fundraising machine. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum's campaign and main super Pac have raised a combined $9.5 million through Jan. 31. Texas Rep. Ron Paul and his super PAC have garnered $34.3 million. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign and super PAC have rung up $31.2 million.
Schier said that without Romney's personal wealth and financial connections, "I don't even think we'd be talking about Mitt Romney today as a candidate. Take it all away and where is he? He's nowhere."
To whom might Romney owe favors? Goldman Sachs not only wrote his 2008 campaign a $2 million loan but its executives have donated more than $1 million to his two presidential campaigns and his federal PAC since 2008, according to a McClatchy analysis of data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The same committees collected over $650,000 from Bain Capital and its predecessor firm, Bain & Co.
Those are among a dozen major banks, hedge funds and private equity firms, some of which share a strong interest in preserving a special 15 percent tax rate on much of their income, that have given Romney's federal committees over $4 million.
Those donations, however, are outstripped by those arriving at the super PAC Restore Our Future, which collected $1 million each from at least 10 donors or couples, including New York hedge fund figures John Paulson, Paul Singer and Julian Robertson, and Romney's former Bain colleague Edward Conard, as well as Bain Capital Partner Paul Edgerly and his wife, Sandra.
Romney was in his second year as Massachusetts' governor in 2004 when his operatives took what critics call unmistakable steps to lay the groundwork for a presidential run by forming the first of a half dozen so-called "Commonwealth" committees.
By 2006, six of the committees were raising money in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona and Alabama. Soon, they temporarily changed their names to Free and Strong America PACs, matching Romney's federal committee, with the stated purpose of supporting state candidates favoring limited government.
The first donor listed by the Iowa committee in the fall of 2004 was businessman Darrell Crate, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party who is now treasurer of Romney's presidential campaign, state campaign filings show. Crate's $6,500 donation was accompanied, on the same day, by $6,000 from Robert White, a co-founder of Bain Capital and close Romney friend who is a part owner of the Boston Celtics. More than $22,000 soon followed from others at Bain or its affiliates.
Those donations soon would be dwarfed.
A committee formed in Alabama, which places no limits on the size of contributions, reported in 2006 donations of $100,000 each from Goldman Sachs managing director Muneer Satter and B. Wayne Hughes, the chairman and founder of Public Storage, $84,330 from billionaire Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner, who has since died, and more than $124,000 from conservative chief executive J. W. Marriott, Jr. of Marriott International and his brother, Richard Marriott. Marshall Wallach, a Denver-based investment banker, gave $86,500, and Texas real estate magnate Bob Perry contributed $80,000.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party, later joined by Alabama Democrats, complained to the FEC that Romney was illegally using the state PACs to aid his presidential campaign. Romney spokeswoman Saul said that the Democratic complaint "has no merit," dismissing it as "a political stunt" initially aimed at ruining a Romney visit to New Hampshire.
The FEC has yet to rule on the complaint, but has never before penalized a presidential candidate for using state committees. The commission consists of three Republicans and three Democrats and often has been stalled by partisan impasses.
The consumer interest group Public Citizen, after obtaining the records of secret FEC votes through the Freedom of Information Act, recently reported that votes on enforcement matters ended in deadlocks 109 times from 2003 through 2010.
Despite its donations, the pro-Romney's PACs had mixed results in wooing endorsements.
From 2004 to 2010, the Iowa PAC gave $541,000 to county Republican committees and GOP candidates for the state legislature and statewide office, topped by $130,000 to former congressman Jim Nussle's 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Romney's PAC and Nussle even worked together to fund five county Republican operations. Nussle lost the governor's bid and then endorsed Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential race.
In 2010, the Iowa PAC gave $30,000 to Terry Branstad's successful bid to return to the governor's office. Branstad, however, declined to endorse anyone before the recent Iowa caucuses, which Romney barely lost.
In South Carolina, where Romney's election prospects were bleaker, his Commonwealth PAC raised less money and donated modestly, except for a $4,000 contribution to Tea Party candidate Nikki Haley before she won the governorship. Haley has endorsed Romney.
In Michigan, Romney won endorsements from seven U.S. House members who got $2,500 in 2010 from his federal PAC, but donations of $4,500 each in 2010 and 2011 to Reps. Candice Miller and Justin Amash went for naught. Miller endorsed Perry and Amash backed Paul.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY