The latest campaign finance records reveal that dozens of private companies, hedge funds and business partnerships contributed to super PACs last year. But in an initial review of the filings, Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, appears to be the only publicly traded company that gave money, making a $250,000 donation to a super PAC backing Rick Perry's since-suspended presidential bid.
Chesapeake did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The paucity of well-known corporate names among the disclosures doesn't mean that leading businesses won't be involved in electoral politics this presidential cycle, according to top corporate lobbyists in Washington.
Major companies are expected to fuel record political activity at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plans to spend at least $50 million on congressional races this year. The chamber, which does not disclose its donors, disputed the amount.
Although many of the nation's leading CEOs are eager to participate in this year's election, they largely plan to steer clear of super PACs because of the disclosure requirements.
"I think the Target experience makes them gun-shy," said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, referring to a national boycott against the retail chain in 2010 after it donated to a political group backing a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who had made negative statements about gay and lesbian rights.
Simmons, a buyout investor who controls a stable of companies that produce metals and chemicals, has never been hesitant about using his fortune to promote his brand of conservative politics. He gave $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 and helped finance a nonprofit group in 2008 that spent $2.9 million on ads attacking Obama's ties to William Ayers, a former member of the 1960s-era Weather Underground.
Simmons has poured $1.1 million into Perry's campaigns, making him the second-largest individual donor to the Texas governor. Under Perry's administration, one of Simmons' companies, Waste Control Specialists, received permission to build the first new low-level radioactive waste disposal site in the country in three decades in an isolated patch of West Texas, despite objections from some state environmental agency staffers.
Simmons now has even more wealth at his disposal: In the last year, his net worth ballooned to roughly $9.6 billion, largely because the stock of Valhi, a chemicals conglomerate he controls, rose 170%, Forbes reported in December.
In the last year, he gave $1.1 million to two super PACs backing Perry's presidential bid, along with $500,000 to Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC. In the fall, he donated $5 million to American Crossroads, while Contran gave $2 million.
"Mr. Simmons is a passionate conservative, and he has been for quite some time," said his spokesman, Chuck McDonald, who described Simmons as "pro-business" and a supporter of tort reform.
But Simmons is not pursuing a specific policy agenda with his donations, McDonald said.
"I know people want to think he is," he said. "He is a man who has a lot of personal wealth and believes in conservative ideology, and that's where he puts his money."
Staff writers Gold and Hamburger reported from Washington and researcher Moore from Los Angeles. Melanie Mason in Washington and Sandra Poindexter and Doug Smith in Los Angeles contributed to this report.