Forget Super PACs. When it comes to political funding, Jewish "bundlers" dominate the scene in the Philadelphia area.
Mitchell Morgan, a Montgomery County developer, may lack the name recognition of, say, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, but Mitt Romney sure knows who he is.
Morgan said he's had the Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor to his house three times over the past year.
In the process, Morgan — whose company oversees rental properties in 10 states — said he's raised a total of $1.7 million from friends and associates for Romney's campaign.
That sum might appear insignificant compared with the $100 million that Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have personally pledged to defeat President Barack Obama. But the nearly $2 million figure ranks Morgan among elite political fundraisers nationally.
So, too, are a number of local Jewish Democrats, including David L. Cohen, Comcast Corporation's executive vice president, who have played key roles in financing Obama's re-election effort.
Much has been made of the role that money is playing in this election. The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., has projected that total spending on the 2012 national elections — including House and Senate races — will approach $6 billion, shattering the previous record of $5.2 billion set four years ago.
In part, the deluge of dollars is due to several recent federal court rulings, including the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission that political spending is a form of free speech.
Taken together, the cases have allowed super wealthy donors like Adelson to give millions to new entities called Super PACs, which can't coordinate directly with presidential campaigns but can spend an unlimited amount on behalf of a candidate.
But despite the presumed sea change in how political coffers get filled, the story in Philadelphia — and in particular among Jewish political insiders — is just how much has remained the same. One insider said that Philadelphia Jews, by and large, are going about political fundraising "the old-fashioned way."
Among both Democrats and Republicans, the scene is still dominated by political "bundlers."
Like all donors, bundlers are subject to federal limits and cannot as individuals give more than $5,000 to a presidential candidate in any election cycle. But they can solicit their friends and associates for donations and hand these monies over to the campaigns — literally turning over bundles of checks — increasing their own influence and raising the profile of their particular network.
These efforts often take place through high-profile fundraising events that may feature an appearance by the candidate, such as the one in 2011 in which the president dined with a number of supporters at the Mount Airy home of Cohen and his wife, Rhonda.
Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in campaign finance and lobbying compliance matters — and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. — described bundling as a vehicle that prioritizes "connections and organizing and not necessarily personal wealth. It prioritizes the people who put in the time to make the phone calls."
In contrast, "this new Super PAC universe depends on personal wealth," said Bonin, who is a donor but not a bundler.
The need to be super wealthy to play is one reason why Philadelphia's political class hasn't jumped in the Super PAC game, said Michael Bronstein, a Democratic political consultant.
"Philadelphia doesn't have 'whales' like New York, Texas, California and Florida. There are only a couple of people in this city who could write the checks that the Super PACs need written," said Bronstein. "There is a difference between Philadelphia money and New York or California money. For Adelson, writing a million-dollar check is literally a drop in the bucket."
There is at least one major exception to this general rule. In August, local real estate investor Mel Heifetz — known more for his work in the gay community than with the Jewish community — gave $1 million to the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA.
In an interview, Heifetz said that even before Obama endorsed gay marriage, he had done more for gays and lesbians than any other president.
Heifetz said he thinks there should be tighter limits on campaign spending and he hopes the system is changed. But with Adelson pledging to spend $100 million on the race, Heifetz said he felt he needed to do his part to help Obama.
"If we don't get Obama for the next four years and we are stuck with Mitt Romney, it is really going to hurt the country," he said.
So the $5,000 question — or, in the post-Citizens United era, the $100 million question — remains: Who has raised more local money with the help of Jewish bundlers, Obama or Romney?
The answer is that it's virtually impossible to know for sure. That's partly because the Romney campaign does not disclose the vast majority of its bundlers. The campaign is not required to do so by law. At the same time, the Obama campaign does not disclose the exact figures its bundlers raise for the president.
But even without disclosing total figures, both camps agree that Obama wins in a town that skews Democrat, especially among Jews.
According to Charles Kopp, who chairs Romney's state finance committee and helped organize a Sept. 28 fundraiser at the Union League, there's little doubt that Obama has outraised Romney among Philadelphia Jews.
At the same time, Kopp said, Romney has raised more local Jewish money than any GOP presidential candidate during the course of his 35-year involvement in national politics.
"It's about Israel," said the 79-year-old attorney. "It's not just that the Jews are worried about Obama. Romney has come out very strong for Israel."
Despite polls that give Obama the clear lead in Pennsylvania, Kopp predicted the race will come down to the wire and every dollar raised will count.
Obama's top bundlers statewide include the Cohens, and attorneys Mark Alderman, Kenneth Jarin and Dan Berger.
They are among at least eight Jewish bundlers from the Philadelphia area — out of a total of 16 bundlers in the whole state — who raised a minimum of $1.6 million for the president, according to campaign records, which are imprecise. Cohen's two 2011 fundraisers for Obama alone were reported to have netted $1.2 million.)
One of the local bundlers, Alan Kessler, estimated that the figure was closer to $2.5 million. The other local Jewish bundlers disclosed by the campaign are Richard Horowitz, a private equity investor; developer Israel Roizman and educator Peter Buttenweiser. Each raised a minimum of $50,000 and most were in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.
Kessler, also an attorney, who has raised about $200,000 for the president, said fundraising for Obama in 2012 has been much tougher than in 2008.
He attributed the difficulty to the lousy economy and the fact that Obama didn't have a galvanizing primary contest this time around. He also acknowledged that questions about the president's record on Israel had made some Jewish donors reticent.
"I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't make the sell in some cases a little more difficult," said Kessler. "A good number of people I solicit are Jewish. I can't think of anybody who said, 'I'm not giving because the president wasn't good for Israel.' I won't say it didn't start out that way."
Kessler and other supporters contend that hearing a thorough review of Obama's record on Israel, from increasing military aid to vetoing the Palestinians' bid for a unilateral declaration of statehood, almost always wins over Democratic skeptics.
Almost without exception, the top local Democratic bundlers have concentrated their giving to the campaigns themselves as well as to the Democratic National Committee, but have eschewed supporting the work of the pro-Obama Priorities USA.
The troubles of the Super PAC have been well documented. So far, the super PAC has raised just over $30 million of its $100 million goal while Romney's Restore Our Future has raised roughly $96 million.
Kessler said it's not so much a philosophical objection to Super PACs but a problem with the campaign's outreach.
"A lot of people I know were never contacted by them. I'm not sure how good a job they have done of really enlisting here," said Kessler. "They are not looking for $5,000 and $10,000 and $20,000 checks, they are looking for the megachecks."
Gauging the impact of Romney's Jewish bundlers is more difficult because the campaign hasn't disclosed who they are. Federal law requires only that the campaign disclose bundlers who are registered lobbyists — a list that includes just 35 people.
Sources have identified local Jews who serve as Romney bundlers but they weren't able to provide estimates of how much they had help raised. Local Romney bundlers include: Morgan, Kopp, developer Ira Lubert, lawyer Steven Friedman, health care consultant David Edman, businessman Alan Miller and David Adelman, CEO of Campus Apartments.
The majority of them have directed their personal giving toward the campaign, as well as to House and Senate candidates nationally and the parties themselves. But a few also gave to the Super PACs.
In the past year, Morgan, the developer, gave $50,000 to Restore Our Future in addition to being a bundler. "I think people spend too much money on the campaigns. There is too much money in politics," Morgan said, with a trace of irony.
But he added that the stakes in this election are so high that he wants to do all he can to help Romney. "I'm in politics because I believe in this country. I never ask politicians for anything."
Obama "was dealt a bad hand, but you just don't throw money at things," Morgan said of the president's handling of the economy.
William Wanger, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition's Philadelphia chapter, is a Romney donor but not a bundler. He said he feels more comfortable handing over his money to a bundler who will give to the campaign than to a faceless Super PAC.
"It's clear that the Jewish community has stepped up and done its part," when Jewish money is bundled through one person, he said. "The Jewish community is energized and wants the candidates to know it is from the Jewish community."