WASHINGTON — Software entrepreneur Terry Ragon didn't want to wake up Wednesday morning in Cambridge, Mass., and wonder whether he'd done enough to help defeat President Bush. So he and his wife donated $3 million to America Coming Together.
Texas investor T. Boone Pickens, a lifelong Republican, couldn't stand to see the millions pouring into the Democratic 527 groups. So he gave $5 million to two conservative groups, one of which was lashing Sen. John F. Kerry about his service in Vietnam.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andrew S. Rappaport and his wife Deborah were disenchanted after the 2002 midterm elections. So they poured more than $4.2 million into small liberal groups, including some reaching out to minorities and voters with an affinity for punk rock.
These large givers are among the power players in today's political money world. The 2002 McCain-Feingold law was supposed to prohibit unlimited corporate, union and individual contributions -- known as "soft money" -- which surpassed the $2,000 individual limit. But the emergence of so-called 527 groups this year changed that notion, perhaps forever.
Through the creation of 527s, named for the Internal Revenue Service tax-code section that governs them, Democratic and Republican supporters found a new way to circumvent the law. And several groups, including America Coming Together, plan to remain on the scene long after this year's presidential race with help from some of the richest people in the country.
Their supporters include well-known billionaires like George Soros. Lesser-known million-dollar donors include independent filmmaker Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, whose company Antidote Films has produced such movies as "Thirteen" and "Laurel Canyon."
"I think I managed to galvanize the opposition to President Bush and I'm really proud of what I've done," Soros, 70, said last week in Washington.
If Bush gets reelected, "I shall go into some kind of monastery to reflect. And frankly, I will be asking, 'What's wrong with us?' "
At last count, 45 individuals or couples contributed a million dollars or more apiece to 527 organizations this election cycle.
They tend to favor Kerry more than Bush. Seventeen of the donors are on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in America. Eleven live in California, having made their money in business, real estate, Hollywood or through family wealth.
Together, million-dollar donors contributed about $167 million, the Center for Public Integrity says, most of it spent on the presidential race.
One man -- West Virginia coal company executive Don Blankenship -- poured $1.7 million into an independent group called And for the Sake of the Kids, which was formed to help defeat a state Supreme Court justice.
"What is surprising is how much a relatively small group of individuals has been willing to give," said campaign finance expert Anthony Corrado, a political science professor at Colby College in Maine.
The McCain-Feingold legislation led the Rappaports, who had long been active in politics and philanthropy, to become more creative in their participation. Before, they simply wrote a check to the Democratic National Committee every year.
"What's changed is the appetite of people like Deborah and myself cannot be satisfied by contributions to the party," Andrew Rappaport said.
The 47-year-old venture capitalist said it made sense to him to give money to smaller 527s, where he could encourage group leaders and give them advice on how to get their messages across.
"It's hard to think of anything more important than Tuesday," said his wife, a local school board member and president of the San Jose Museum of Art. "But what this is going to translate into in the longer term is a more robust progressive movement in this country."
The phenomenon began in the summer of 2003 after Democratic strategist Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, began worrying that Democrats would not have enough money to challenge Bush. The new soft-money ban included corporate and union donations that had been a mainstay of the Democratic Party.
So Ickes figured out a way around the restrictions: He would create a group of interlocking 527 organizations, independent from the Democratic political machine, that would operate in battleground states.
Although 527 groups had existed for years, no one had capitalized on them like this before.
America Coming Together, or ACT, would concentrate on getting people registered to vote and to the polls, while the Media Fund would run political advertising. The Joint Victory Campaign 2004 was established largely to raise money for the other two organizations.
Joining Ickes were Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, and fundraiser Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a political action committee for women who support abortion rights.