Feature: Where UFC-connected money went in US politics in 2016

During a dramatic 2015-2016 election cycle over $3 billion was pumped into political campaigns across the United States. As a part of this action…

By: Tim Bissell | 6 years ago
Feature: Where UFC-connected money went in US politics in 2016
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During a dramatic 2015-2016 election cycle over $3 billion was pumped into political campaigns across the United States. As a part of this action were individuals and organizations with extremely close ties to the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). The following is a breakdown of which candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs got sizeable donations from ZUFFA LLC, the Fertittas, Dana White, and others associated with the world’s premier mixed-martial-arts promotion.

The Rules

Warning, the following is pretty dry. I’ve done my best to keep it succinct, but it’s still quite long. You don’t need to have this memorized to get the gist of what’s to come, but it will definitely help you better understand why certain individuals gave certain amounts to the politicians and political groups that we’ll cover later. Ok, here we go…

In the US the maximum amount of money a single person can give to a political candidate (or a candidate’s campaign committee) is $2,700 per election. In the US last year there was a single presidential election, which occurred alongside elections for the US Senate and House of Representatives. In addition to these, there were also 14 gubernatorial races and a slew of mayoral races.

An individual can donate as much as $5,000 to a Political Action Committee (PAC). PACs are entities set up by groups like labor unions, corporations, or trade associations with the goal of collecting donations from different sources. PACs then make their own donations to politicians or other PACs.

Regular PACs come in two forms: separate segregated funds and nonconnected PACs. Separate segregated funds only raise money from individuals connected to the organization that has set-up the PAC. An example of this would be a corporation who starts a PAC for the purpose of soliciting donations from just their employees. Non-connected PACs solicit donations from any and all sources.

In addition to these differences, PACs can also be broken down into two other categories: multi-candidate PACs and non multi-candidate PACs. Multi-candidate PACs have over 50 people contributing money into them and have donated money to at least 5 federal candidates. Non multi-candidate PACs simply don’t meet those listed requirements.

An individual can also give up to $10,000 to a state, district & local party committee per calendar year. This category includes entities like The Republican Party of Alabama or the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. These organizations are focused on getting party members elected in a given territory.

An individual can also give up to $33,400 to a national political party committee per year. The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee are included in this category.

An individual can also give up to $100,200 to additional national party committee accounts. This means people – rich people, that is – are able to donate large sums to national party committees, earmarked for things like national conventions, party legal funds, or national party headquarters.

So, that all covers how the humble American citizen might get financially involved in the US political process. Serious kingmakers max themselves out on all these tactics. After doing that, they find yet more ways to inject cash into their chosen candidates; like setting up their own PACs.

Non multi-candidate PACs can donate a maximum of $5,000 per election to political candidates or their campaign committees. These types of PACs then have the same rules as individuals governing their max contributions to other PACs, and various parties and committees.

Multi-candidate PACs can donate a maximum amount of $5,000 to a political candidate per election, too. They can also donate up to $5,000 to any other PAC. Whereas individuals (and non-multi candidate PACs) can donate up to $10,000 to state, district, and local party committees per year, multi-candidate PACs can only donate $5,000. These PACs are also limited to $15,000 per year to a national party committee and $45,000 per year to additional national party committee accounts.

Last thing now! Super PACs. This is where the real money swaps hands. Super PACs can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, or elsewhere. However, Super PACs can not give money directly to federal candidates or political parties. What Super PACs can do is spend unlimited amounts of money to independently campaign for or against candidates/parties. They can also make unlimited donations to other PACs.

Ok, thanks for sticking with me… Now we know the rules for how (and how much) individuals like Dana White – or PACs set up by ZUFFA – can give to various entities, let’s look at who got dough in 2016.

Home Cooking

The UFC lives in Nevada. So it’s no surprise that a number of Nevada senators and congresspeople receive regular donations from various sources connected to ZUFFA.

A favorite of the UFC crew is Representative Joe Heck, a Republican from Nevada’s 3rd congressional district. The 3rd covers the southern edge of Las Vegas, the city of Henderson, and a large amount of unincorporated desert. Heck has served the district since 2011.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV)
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

In 2016 Joe Heck received over $100,000 from individuals connected to the UFC, according to information available on OpenSecrets.org. Reportedly, both Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta gave him the maximum donation allowed by individuals ($2,700), but they weren’t the only Fertittas to do so. Open Secrets has also logged $2,700 donations from Kelley Ann Fertitta (Frank’s daughter) and Victoria Fertitta (the brothers’ mother). Reportedly, Kirk Hendrick, ZUFFA LLC’s Chief of Legal Operations, gave $2,700 as well, and so did Michelle Epstein, wife of Ike Lawrence Epstein, ZUFFA’s Chief Operating Officer.

In addition to these donations from individuals, Heck also received $5,000 from ZUFFA PAC, a political action committee which has been operational since at least 2009. In the 2016 cycle, ZUFFA PAC received $173,750 in donations. According to Open Secrets, people who donated $5,000 to ZUFFA PAC (the max. an individual can give to a PAC) in 2016 include Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta III, Dana White, Joe Silva, Kirk Hendrick, Ike Lawrence Epstein, John Hertig (an attorney who has worked with Fertitta Entertainment and the Fertitta’s Red Rock Resorts), Michael Mossholder (UFC Senior Vice President of Global Marketing), Craig Borsari (UFC Vice President of Operations and Productions) and Edward Muncey (UFC Senior Vice President of Technology). Other individuals who kicked $5,000 into the ZUFFA PAC pot include Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta’s wives (Jill Ann and Teresa), their mother Victoria, and their four children.

According to donations listed on Open Secrets, Heck received an additional $5,000 each from both Fertitta brothers and their wives for his Full House PAC. Open Secrets also reports that Heck got $81,000 from individuals who listed Station Casinos as their employer. Station Casinos, which is owned by the Fertitta family, raised more money for Heck than any other company last year. Reportedly, Heck also received $40,100 from Silver Lake Partners, a private equity firm which is a minority investor in WME | IMG. Silver Lake Partners was – according to Forbes – a ‘strategic investor’ in the $4 billion sale of the UFC between the Fertittas and WME | IMG last July.

Based on the records available at Open Secrets, Dana White did not give to Joe Heck in 2016, though he did make a $2,700 donation to the congressman in 2015.

Reportedly, Heck raised over $12m last cycle to fund his attempt to win the Senate seat vacated by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. However, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto raised $7m more and won the seat in the general election. Interestingly, Cortez Masto also received UFC money. According to Open Secrets she got $2,500 from ZUFFA PAC last year.

After Heck, the next most popular Nevada politician in the Fertitta family checkbook appears to be Republican Senator Dean Heller. According to Open Secrets, around $30,000 of UFC connected funds found its way to his campaign last cycle. This includes $7,500 from ZUFFA PAC, $10,900 from Station Casino employees, and $5,000 each from Frank Fertitta and his wife (who made those donations to Heller’s personal PAC – HellerHighWater PAC).

Other Nevadans who reportedly received notable amounts of money from UFC connected sources (based on records listed on Open Secrets) include Representative Danny Tarkanian (a Republican who lost his district to a Democrat in 2016), Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2), State Senator Michael Roberson (R-NV), and Representative Dina Titus (D-NV1). All those individuals received money from the ZUFFA PAC. Tarkanian also received $2,000 from Kirk Hendrick, $24,550 from Station Casinos employees and $3,000 from Silver Lake Partners. Amodei got $5,450 from Silver Lake Partners, too. Rep. Titus, in addition to $1,500 from ZUFFA PAC, received $5,000 from the Fertitta Entertainment PAC, a PAC which raised around $74,000 in the 2016 cycle. Fertitta Entertainment PAC also gave $5,000 to Roberson.

From Enemy to Ally

According to Open Secrets data, lots of UFC linked money flowed to politicians outside of Nevada last year. One of the most notable destinations for that coin appears to be the war chest of Senator John McCain.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Republican Senator from Arizona has held his seat in Washington since 1987. He famously ran for President against then-Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

McCain’s history with the UFC can be traced back to 1996, three years after the first ever UFC event. It was then that McCain called the burgeoning blood sport ‘human cockfighting’, a label that held MMA back throughout the late nineties. McCain had pledged to have MMA removed from TV and pay-per-view, but his views seemed to have changed by 2007, when he said the sport had made, “significant progress.”

In 2016 McCain – according to Open Secrets – received $2,700 checks from Frank Fertitta III, Lorenzo Feritta, Teresa Fertitta, Jill Ann Fertitta, ZUFFA PAC, Silver Lake Partners, Kirk Hendrick, Edward Muncey, and Craig Borsari. Reportedly, McCain also received $2,660 from sources connected to Station Casinos. These donations total $77,900.

A Friend in Iowa

Another veteran politician who reportedly had money come in from the UFC and their proxies was Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. A powerful conservative in the Senate, Grassley has served since 1981. He is the current chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and co-chairman of the Caucus on International Narcotics Control. He’s also a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2016 Grassley got $5,000 from the Fertitta Entertainment PAC. That’s the most that PAC gave any senator. Reportedly, Grassley also received $2,500 from ZUFFA PAC, $17,900 from individuals listing Stations Casino as their employee/occupation, $12,900 from Silver Lake Partners, and – based on Open Secrets’ logs – maximum personal donations from Frank Feritta III, Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White, and Teresa Fertitta. Reportedly, Jill Ann Fertitta also gave $2,300 to Grassley’s campaign. These donations total over $50,000.

Table scraps for Democrats

Based on more Open Secrets data, ZUFFA PAC, Fertitta Entertainment PAC, and the individual donations of White and the Fertitta’s are overwhelmingly skewed to Republicans. However, along with Dina Titus in Nevada, there appear to be few Democrats who get donations from those connected to the UFC and the Fertittas.

Open Secrets’ data shows that people linked to Station Casinos gave Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) $16,200 and Silver Lake Partners gave him $30,000. Reportedly, Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta III, Victoria Fertitta, Kelley Ann Fertitta, Jill Fertitta, and Teresa Fertitta all gave Schumer $2,700 each. This all adds up to $62,400.

Another democrat who – according to Open Secrets’ records – received money from the UFC was Assemblyman Keith Wright from Manhattan. In November, 2013 – while MMA was banned in the state of New York – Wright said to UFC.com that, “legalizing MMA in New York is the right thing to do.” Wright also claimed that he would work to educate his fellow politicians in New York about the importance of MMA and the economic impact it could have on the state.

Reportedly, Wright was given $4,000 by both ZUFFA PAC and Silver Lake Partners in 2016. He was running for Charlie Rangel’s vacated seat representing New York’s 13th congressional district. Wright lost the democratic primary to Adriano Espaillat.

Another Dem who received Fertitta money last term, and was unable to win a seat, was State Senator Isadore Hall from California’s 35th district. Open Secrets reports that Hall brought in $8,700 from Station Casinos workers, $1,000 from Silver Lake, and personal donations of $2,700 from each of the Feritta brothers and their wives. Hall ran for congress in the general election last year, but lost to Nanette Barragan.

UFC/ZUFFA related monies are also recorded by Open Secrets as finding their way to the Searchlight Leadership Fund, a liberal PAC associated with former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who resigned this year. Reid represented Nevada in the Senate since 1987 and served as Senate Minority Leader, Majority Leader, Minority Whip, and Majority Whip throughout his career in Washington.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

ZUFFA PAC gave the Searchlight Leadership Fund $7,500 in 2016. Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III gave personal donations of $5,000 to this PAC, as did their mother, both their wives, and their four children, all according to Open Secrets.

Reportedly, individuals from Station Casinos also gave this PAC $40,000. That represents the largest bundle of donations that the Searchlight Leadership Fund received in the 2015-2016 election cycle, according to Open Secrets. These sums total $92,500. That represents about 6% of the entire amount of money ($1.5m) reportedly raised by the Searchlight Leadership Fund last cycle.

The Searchlight Leadership Fund only made donations to Democrats last year; including Hilary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Dina Titus.

Based on results on Open Secrets, Frank, Lorenzo, Teresa, and Jill Ann Fertitta also gave $15,000 each to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2016. ZUFFA PAC also donated $5,000 to the DSCC. The DSCC is an organization dedicated to electing Democrats to the US Senate.

Silver Lake Partners, whose official connection with the UFC began only last summer, has a tradition of supporting Democratic candidates. This isn’t shocking considering that the firm is connected to Ari Emanuel, a well known liberal whose brother Rahm – the current mayor of Chicago – served in President Barack Obama’s White House. In 2016 Silver Lake Partners gave over $200,000 to Democrats and around $130,000 to Republicans.

Big bundles for Republicans

The hundreds of thousands of dollars counted above aren’t really ‘table scraps’, I know, but those amounts are insignificant compared to what the Fertittas appear to have pumped into Republican coffers last year.

Reportedly, through tactics such as bundling individual donations within their family and businesses, the Fertitta’s paid out to current House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner, and Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Roy Blunt of Missouri. However, it appears the Fertittas placed their biggest bets with Republican committees and Super PACs.

Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, with their wives (Jill Ann and Teresa), bundled huge contributions to various state and national Republican parties and committees in 2016. Here’s the full list, including a breakdown of which Fertitta gave what (according to information available on Open Secrets).

$400,800 to the Republican National Committee ($100,200 Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$263,600 to the National Republican Congressional Committee ($68.4K Frank/Lorenzo, $58.4K Jill Ann/Teresa, $10K Kelly Ann)*

$66,800 to National Republican Senatorial Committee ($33.4K Frank/Lorenzo)

$40,000 to Missouri Republican State Committee ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Wisconsin ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to New Jersey Republican State Committee ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania ($1K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of California ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Connecticut Republican Campaign Committee ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Louisiana ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of South Carolina ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Minnesota ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of West Virginia ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to New Hampshire Republican State Committee ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to New York Republican Federal Campaign Committee ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Kansas ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Arkansas ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$40,000 to Republican Party of Mississippi ($10K Frank/Lorenzo/Jill Ann/Teresa)

$27,742 to Republican Party of Illinois ($3,871 Frank/Lorenzo, $10K Jill Ann/Teresa)

$23,342 to Republican Party of North Carolina ($10K Jill Ann/Teresa, $1,671 Frank/Lorenzo)

$20,000 to Republican Party of Florida ($10K Frank/Lorenzo)

$20,000 to Republican Party of Kentucky ($10K Frank/Lorenzo)

$20,000 to Republican Part of Iowa ($10k Frank/Lorenzo)

$13,800 to Republican Central Committee of Nevada ($4.6K Frank/Lorenzo/Victoria)

$4,400 to Oklahoma Leadership Council ($2.2K Frank/Lorenzo)

*The National Republican Senatorial Committee also received $10,000 from both the ZUFFA PAC and Feritta Entertainment PAC.

This all adds up to $1,440,484.

Lorenzo Fertitta and Teresa Fertitta
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

And that’s not even where the Ferititta’s reportedly put most their money in 2016.

Meet the Senate Leadership Fund, a Virginia based conservative super PAC that raised over $116m last year. Reportedly, $1.5m of this came from the Fertittas.

According to Open Secrets, Lorenzo and Frank each wrote checks for $250,000 for this super PAC. In addition to that half-a-million dollars, ZUFFA LLC and Station Casinos each contributed $500,000. Since this is a super PAC there are no limits on how much a person or corporation can give.

The Senate Leadership Fund used its pot of gold to campaign for various Republicans in the 2016 general election. Though (per election rules) the super PAC could not give money directly to candidates. Much of this fund was spent creating independent ads to benefit the Republican party.

The super PAC also donated over $22m to a regular PAC called Granite State Solutions. This is the only other PAC the Senate Leadership Fund donated money to, and it represents one of the biggest expenditures for the fund last year.

Granite State Solutions was a PAC set up for helping sitting Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte keep her seat; in the face of stiff opposition from Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. Ayotte had been labeled a ‘vulnerable Republican’ after the Koch Brothers-linked group Americans for Prosperity stated they would not support her in the election, because of her stance on climate change (she believes it is real).

Ayotte received more support from UFC sources last year, too. Open Secrets reports she got $1,500 from the Fertitta Entertainment PAC, $24,100 from people associated with Station Casinos, and $6,032 from Silver Lake Partners. She also received $2,700 personal donations from both Fertitta brothers and their wives. Kirk Hendrick also donated $1,000 to her campaign. Despite the $43,432 described here, and the $22m from the Senate Leadership Fund, Ayotte lost her Senate race to Hassan by an extremely narrow margin.

Dana and Donald

Now you know who the Fertittas’ favorite senators appear to be and which members of congress were reportedly smiled upon by Station Casinos. But last year was really all about presidential politics. Everyone knows by now that Republican candidate Donald Trump was victorious after a vicious (and sometimes vile) campaign opposite Hilary Clinton. Guess where the UFC’s money was in this race…

President Donald Trump
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Dana White has famously sung the praises of now-President Trump, labeling him a friend of both the UFC and MMA in general. The UFC president even spoke on Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention in July, 2016. But did White put his money where his mouth is?

According to Open Secrets, he did not. Reportedly, the only politicians who moved White enough to write a check was the previously mentioned Senator Chuck Grassley, who he gave $2,700.

White’s friends the Fertittas were a lot more open to betting on ‘the Donald,’ though. Open Secrets has Lorenzo, Frank, and their wives gave the Trump train $2,700 each. The reality star also received $8,388 via people connected with Station Casinos. Silver Lake Partners tossed in $250.

And once Trump had won the White House, he got an additional gift from Frank Fertitta. Per Suzanne Davis (@SoozieCuzie), Frank donated $201,000 to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Davis also reported that Fertitta Entertainment donated $500,000 to the ceremony.

Historically liberal-leaning Silver Lake Partners spent $59,107 on the campaign of Hilary Clinton (per Open Secrets). And folks at Station Casinos contributed $2,746 to the Clinton camp.


Now that we know what UFC connected people, PACs, and businesses spent on politics last year, what can we make of it?

First, it is clear that the Fertitta Dynasty is serious about politics. The family was one of the top ‘bundlers’ in Nevada, utilizing familial bonds, workplace connections, and their own political action committees to flood the 2016 election with money they may have made off of the backs of Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey.

By looking at their publicly reported donations, it’s obvious that the family leans Republican, but not to the point that they won’t donate to a Democrat from time to time. The brothers, and the businesses around them, also seem loyal to a select few politicians, whose campaigns they have been funding for years (such as John McCain, Dean Heller, and Joe Heck).

Compared to the Fertitta’s activity, it’s a little surprising that Dana White made just two donations in the 2016 election. In past years White has been a lot more generous with his funds. According to Open Secrets, in 2012 he sunk thousands into Republican committees in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Vermont. He also gave over $50,000 to the Republican National Committee that year, and donated the maximum personal amount to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Another interesting takeaway from these numbers is revealed when examining Silver Lake Partners. The Californian private equity firm has a long history of supporting the Democratic Party. Open Secrets data states that they gave Dems $181,250 versus just $33,788 to Republicans. In 2012 the gulf between the parties was even wider, with GOP candidates getting just $4,500. Silver Lake gave Barack Obama $27,298 that year.

But in the same year they invested in the UFC, their donation list filled up with the usual Republican suspects who get money from ZUFFA, Station Casinos, and the Fertittas on the regular. Is this a sign that despite the Fertittas walking away from ZUFFA, the company will continue to support conservatives? We’ll probably get closer to an answer this next year, when we see who gets ZUFFA’s money in 2017.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

Tim is also BE's lead (only) sumo reporter. He blogs about that sport here and on his own substack, Sumo Stomp!

Email me at tim@bloodyelbow.com. Nice messages will get a response.

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