This Man Is the Future of Super PACs

California winemaker John Jordan started out giving money to Karl Rove and other political professionals. But now he's taking matters into his own hands.
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Jordan Vineyard and Winery

HEALDSBURG, California—It's a Monday afternoon in mid-March, and Republican multimillionaire John Jordan is preparing to host House Speaker John Boehner for dinner the following Saturday—not that he sounds particularly excited about it. "I know that, traditionally, that it makes donors feel good that the candidates, the politicians come," he tells me, as he steps into the intimate dining room where they'll be eating. "I really don't care."

Jordan isn't fussing much over the menu, other than to ensure that there will be generous amounts of the acclaimed cabernet sauvignon produced on his 1,450-acre Northern California vineyard. (Boehner's love of reds is widely known.) He does have one surprise in mind: a 9-foot mechanized dinosaur that will appear, partway through the meal, amid the giant wine tanks that the dining room overlooks. Jordan wants the event—where he and other donors will mingle with Boehner and select staff—to be anything but boring. Along those lines, he has one rule for his political guests: no speeches. "We all know what they're going to say anyway," he explains.

This is Boehner's second visit to the vineyard in as many years. The last time the speaker swung through town, in March 2013, Jordan—who took over the wine business from his parents—dashed off more than $80,000 in checks to his guest and various other GOP groups. Indeed, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, last year he was the third-largest individual super PAC contributor in the nation, behind only billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. No wonder so many prominent Republicans—the list includes Mitch McConnell, Rick Perry, and Tim Pawlenty—have made the trek to Jordan's winery in recent years.

Still, Jordan insists he doesn't like glad-handing with politicians. "I'm not trying to spoon with them," he says. "I don't care. In fact, I try to avoid—I go out of my way to avoid meeting candidates and politicians." Why? "All too often, these people are so disappointing that it's depressing. Most of these people you meet, they're unemployable .… It's just easier not to know."

What Jordan—42 years old this month, with sandy blond hair and a linebacker's build—loves is not the politicians themselves but the game of politics. He reads the Drudge Report, RealClearPolitics, and the D.C. political rags religiously. He consumes polling crosstabs and studies the latest ads in races across the country. He spends about three hours a day feeding his political appetite. "I geek out on this stuff," he says.

In 2012, Jordan donated to the Karl Rove–affiliated Crossroads network. But his geekiest and priciest political moment came last June, when he created his own super PAC, hired his own campaign team, and poured more than $1.4 million of his own money into a single candidate—Republican Gabriel Gomez, who was contesting a special election 3,000 miles away to fill John Kerry's Senate seat in Massachusetts—despite the fact that Jordan had never met or spoken to him. Gomez lost the election, but Jordan continues to plan forays into the political world. This week, he funded a flight of ads in Oregon's contested Republican Senate primary, and he is contemplating more such interventions in the near future.

For Jordan, building his own highly specific political organizations is proving much more attractive than simply doling out checks to omnibus groups like Crossroads. And he's one of a growing number of millionaires and billionaires who are taking this approach. The biggest of these do-it-yourself donors—people such as Bloomberg or brothers Charles and David Koch—are household names. But a number of relatively anonymous free-spenders are also opting to play the role of kingmaker on their own terms. This group includes hedge-fund manager Sean Fieler, who has almost single-handedly bankrolled a super PAC that aims to elect social conservatives; Miami retiree Ronald Firman, who recently poured $1.5 million into an unsuccessful super PAC campaign in a Florida House special election; and Jonathan Soros, the son of liberal financier George Soros, who has a super PAC dedicated to, of all things, lessening the impact of big money in politics.

In other words, American politics is about to have many more John Jordans. There's going to be a super PAC on nearly every corner, many of them funded by people you've never heard of. "The super PAC world is going to be a lot more balkanized," Jordan says. "There's not going be one big super PAC. It's not going to be like it was in 2012 ever again."

A Donor Becomes Disillusioned

Jordan is a proud Republican, though he doesn't like to be confined to an ideological cubby. He supports abortion rights and gay marriage, and his winery hawks its commitment to solar power. But he's deeply worried about the growing size and intrusiveness of government. "It is truly about the individual versus the state and the growth of the state," he says of the Obama era.

The winery owner first met Karl Rove at Fox News studios in New York City more than two years ago, back when he was dating one of the channel's correspondents, Juliet Huddy. Jordan and his parents had been longtime Republican donors, but when he saw Rove, he told him he was thinking of getting quite a bit more involved. At the time, Rove was building a juggernaut at American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the super PAC and nonprofit that together amounted to the biggest pro-Republican political apparatus in the country.

It was Rove's task to help reel in big-fish contributors, and Jordan had hooked himself on the line. So it wasn't long before Rove was winding past the gates of Jordan's Healdsburg estate and up the scenic mile-long driveway for an intimate dinner to make his pitch. Jordan and Rove subsequently attended the Kentucky Derby together, along with Rove's then-fiancée, Karen Johnson, and Huddy. (Huddy and Jordan have since split.)

Jordan says he soon became a "seven-figure contributor and raiser" to Crossroads, but even before the disappointment of November 2012, he found himself frustrated. Jordan had thought his hefty check would grant him a privileged position inside one of the nation's biggest Republican operations. Instead, he felt like he was on the outside looking in. "With Crossroads all you got was, Karl Rove would come and do his little rain dance," Jordan says. He didn't complain aloud so much as stew. "You write them the check and they have their investors' conference calls, which are"—Jordan pauses here for a full five seconds, before deciding what to say next—"something else. You learn nothing. They explain nothing. They don't disclose anything even to their big donors." (Crossroads Communications Director Paul Lindsay responded via email, "We appreciated Mr. Jordan's support in 2012 and his frequent input since then." Rove declined to comment.)

The Crossroads network raised a combined $325 million in the 2012 election cycle. Yet Mitt Romney lost. So did Scott Brown, Rick Berg, and George Allen. Almost every Republican in every Senate race in the country that Crossroads spent money on lost, with the exception of Dean Heller in Nevada. To Jordan, Crossroads' strategy was just "spray-and-pray advertising." Worse, Jordan had no idea where all his money had gone. It turns out that the secretive nature of the nonprofit Crossroads GPS and some opaque disclosure laws kept even its biggest donors in the dark about the details. Jordan wanted to know who had scored commissions on ad buys, what was spent on television versus online, and, at the most basic level, "who's making what." He couldn't find out. "To hell with this," he decided.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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