Who Are Iowa’s Top Presidential Donors?

Right to Rise USA/YouTube

Through last September, the five Iowans who contributed the most money to presidential campaigns — and the ostensibly unaffiliated super PACs supporting them — gave exclusively in support of former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Florida).

That’s according to an Informer analysis of the most recently available Federal Election Commission data, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and Des Moines Register. It accounts for political action committee contributions through the end of last August and donations directly to candidates’ presidential campaigns through September. (The next filing deadline, for presidential candidates and PACs alike, is Jan. 31 — one day before the caucuses.)

Of the $218,700 the top five Iowa donors dropped on the 2016 race for the White House — chump change compared to the hundreds of millions pouring into the Democratic and Republican primaries — most of it was collected by Right to Rise USA, the main super PAC backing Bush, who’s currently in a distant sixth place in Iowa less than two weeks away from the caucuses.

Here’s a closer look at those five donors:

1. John and Janis Ruan ($105,400): Chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation and previously of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, John Ruan III is a well-known Des Moines businessman. He and his wife, Janis, gave $25,000 apiece to Right to Rise USA. Ruan Inc., a corporation chaired by John, and Ruan Center Corp. — aka Ruan Transportation Management Systems, Ruan Inc.’s trucking division — were the donors listed for two additional $25,000 contributions to the super PAC. The Ruans gave another $5,400 directly to Bush’s campaign, each maxing out their $2,700 individual contribution limit for presidential candidates during the primaries.

2. Jon and Christy Troen ($30,400): Another Des Moines businessman, Jon Troen is president of the Mittera Group, a printing and direct mail company. Troen is also on the Iowa steering committee of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a Washington-based organization that proposes ideas to slash the federal deficit. He cut Right to Rise USA a check for $25,000, and he and wife Christy each gave another $2,700 directly to Bush.

3. Dennis Albaugh ($27,700): One of the state’s only billionaires, Albaugh made his fortune in agribiz after founding an eponymous fertilizer company in 1979. The Ankeny magnate made bank selling a generic version of the herbicide chemical glyphosate when Monsanto’s patent on it expired in 2001; nine years later, he sold his company for a cool $1.3 billion. He donated $25,000 to Right to Rise USA and $2,700 to Bush’s campaign.

3 (tie). Mark Jacobs ($27,700): Jacobs went to high school in Des Moines before departing the state and going on to become CEO of Houston-based Reliant Energy. After retiring from that position, he returned to Iowa decades later to launch a bid for the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Tom Harkin in 2013. His self-funded campaign was record-setting but ultimately faltered in a crowded GOP primary field, with now-Sen. Joni Ernst emerging the victor. Like Albaugh, Jacobs this cycle gave $25,000 to the pro-Bush super PAC and $2,700 to the campaign itself.

5. Mark and Jill Oman ($27,500): Formerly a senior vice president at Wells Fargo & Co. in West Des Moines, Mark Oman retired in 2011, scooping up a $16.4 million compensation package on his way out. Like Jon Troen, Mark also sits on Fix the Debt’s Iowa steering committee. He and wife Jill are philanthropists: In 2014, the University of Northern Iowa alums gave $1.1 million to their alma matter to fund two scholarships, one for teacher education and the other for business administration. The couple gifted a combined $27,500 to Right to Rise USA.

(Interesting note: Last fall, Mark Oman, Dennis Albaugh, Mark Jacobs, John Ruan III, and Jon Troen all signed a pledge to support Bush and endorse his economic record as governor.)

According to the records reviewed by the Informer, no other early donors gave in excess of $10,000 — at least, not officially. James Bergkamp Sr., a retired cattleman living in Webster City, gave $18,562 in support of neurosurgeon-turned-GOP presidential contender Ben Carson. However, only $562 of that went to a super PAC, the pro-Carson 2016 Committee. The remaining $18,000 reportedly went straight to Carson’s own campaign committee, vastly exceeding the $2,700 cap on individual donations to presidential candidates during the primary season. At least $3,500 has already been returned to Bergkamp.

An honorable mention also goes to Hunter Parks, founder of the Cedar Rapids-based Hunter Construction Co. Records show that Parks gave $10,000 to the campaign of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a Republican, on Sept. 18. Parks, like Bergkamp, was likely asked to find a joint filer or provided a partial refund.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.