Hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer is all in for the conservative Texas Republican Ted Cruz, and the billionaire will have unusually substantial influence in how his contributions get spent.
But the billionaire also has some baggage—like, the avoiding billions in taxes kind of baggage.
His alleged failure to pay those taxes led to substantial congressional scrutiny in 2014—and it’s not clear the investigation is over.
This, and some of Mercer’s side projects, could present interesting challenges for Cruz’s campaign. Especially since Cruz has been a vocal opponent of those who “give favors to Wall Street” and engage in “crony capitalism.”
On the one hand, Mercer’s support is fantastic for Cruz for all the obvious reasons (having a billionaire in your corner is nice). On the other hand, Mercer’s hedge fund—Renaissance Technologies—recently faced an unflattering congressional investigation, the results of which indicated that it used complex and unorthodox financial structures to dramatically lower its tax burden.This drew scorching bipartisan criticism from investigators on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“Renaissance profited from this tax treatment by insisting on the fiction that it didn’t really own the stocks it traded—that the banks that Renaissance dealt with, did,” said Sen. John McCain during a hearing on the issue, per Mother Jones. “But, the fact is that Renaissance did all the trading, maintained full control over the account…and reaped all of the profits.”
In his opening statement for that hearing, then-subcommittee chair Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said that Mercer’s business avoided paying more than $6 billion in taxes between 2000 and 2013.
Since then, Levin has retired from the Senate and Republican Sen. Rob Portman has taken his place as subcommittee chair. When I called the subcommittee’s Capitol Hill office to see if any investigation into Renaissance was still underway, the person who answered the phone said he couldn’t comment on active investigations. I then asked if that meant the investigation was in fact active.
“I can’t say whether it’s active, I can’t say whether it’s inactive, I can’t even say whether we’ve investigated them,” he said.
Later, Portman’s spokeswoman, Caitlin Conant, emailed to say that the committee doesn’t comment on its work beyond what’s in the public record. Renaissance Technologies didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether they’re currently being investigated.
Given this probe into his company’s books, it’s no surprise Mercer has invested heavily in keeping financial industry watchdogs from gaining political power. However, you’d think this might conflict with his candidate’s populist zeal.
“[M]y criticism with Washington is they engage in crony capitalism,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics. “They give favors to Wall Street and big business and that’s why I’ve been an outspoken opponent of crony capitalism, taking on leaders in both parties.”
But the Cruz campaign doesn’t seem to see any problems with the arrangement. When I asked Rick Tyler, the campaign’s senior communications adviser, if he was worried about potential conflicts, he said, “No way.”
Mercer has long backed conservative candidates, and he’s spending heavily on Cruz through a new breed of super PACs started by the super rich.
An anonymous Cruz source told Bloomberg on Wednesday that a franchise of pro-Cruz super PACs—formed just this week—will have raised $31 million by end of the day on Friday. There are four super PACs, called Keep the Promise, Keep the Promise I, Keep the Promise II, and Keep the Promise III.
This is not normal; presidential candidates usually give their imprimatur to one such group, which then rakes in contributions and makes independent expenditures to help the candidate. After all, there are legal limits on how much donors can give to presidential candidates, but no limits on how much they can give to these PACs.
One longtime campaign lawyer said the widespread Republican donor buyer’s remorse exists from the the 2012 general elections—when a few powerful super PACs spent massive sums of money to get Mitt Romney elected, and were left empty-handed on Election Night. As a result, billionaires are starting their own PACs to fund political campaigns to have more control on how their money gets spent.
It’s worth noting that this explanation doesn’t make sense to everyone. Dan Backer, an attorney who’s worked extensively with Republican and Tea Party groups on campaign finance issues, said he thought having multiple super PACs could make life unnecessarily difficult for everyone involved.
“All you’re doing is multiplying your reporting and compliance burden for no good reason,” he said. “At first blush, it just strikes me as a little weird.”
Regardless, the operating assumption seems to be that having a cadre of super PACs will give mega-donors like Mercer more power over the dynamics of the presidential election. Saul Anuzis, a Michigan Republican operative who started a Mercer-funded super PAC in the 2014 midterms, indicated as much in an interview with Mother Jones. He told the magazine that he expected to see "more and more super-PACs starting that are donor-centric or district-centric.” In Cruz and Mercer’s case, that prediction seems remarkably prescient.
In 2010, 2012, and 2014 the billionaire spent significant money trying (unsuccessfully) to take out Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, who has made his support of higher Wall Street taxes a signature issue. And DeFazio has used the fact that he’s a Mercer target to burnish his fiscal-progressive bona fides.
Mercer helped Lee Zeldin defeat former Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor George Demos in a 2014 Republican House race primary. Mercer also helped Zeldin win the general election, where he defeated a Democratic incumbent who was a vociferous defender of Dodd-Frank.
But his areas of interest are broader than just elections. He singlehandedly paid for a $1 million TV ad campaign opposing the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. And his affinity for conservative causes seems to go back to his early days doing research for the Kirtland Air Force Base’s weapons lab in New Mexico.
Mercer hinted at his political evolution in a 2014 speech he gave to accept the Association for Computational Linguistics lifetime achievement award. He described rewriting a computer program so that it worked more efficiently, and then said that his bosses at the lab decided to just make the program do more complicated computations.
“I took this as an indication that one of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers as it is to consume the computer budget, which has left me ever since with a jaundiced view of government-financed research,” he said.
Excepting Zeldin, Mercer’s chosen candidates haven’t fared particularly well. The billionaire spent $1 million to help pay for the 2012 Republican National Convention, and also gave Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS significant funds to try to boost Republicans’ fortunes. And he spent $200,000 on Wendy Long’s Senate race. Who’s Wendy Long, you ask? Right.
There’s a kind of funny flip in the media narrative here, too. After Cruz announced that he would run, a Politico sub-hed blared that he was “months behind his competitors in recruiting mega-donors and bundlers.” If the storied $31 million materializes, then those concerns were probably meritless.
But, to paraphrase the poet, with new money comes new problems. And it remains to be seen how a cozy alliance with a guy whose hedge fund allegedly dodged $6 billion in taxes could play out for the senator.