Stephanie Grace: Super PACs shaping Louisiana’s governor race; see who's throwing thousands at each candidate _lowres

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., watches before an NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)

Up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, there’s a guy who’s concerned about Louisiana. Very, very concerned. So concerned that he recently cut a $150,000 check to the Fund for Louisiana’s Future.

What Thomas Rastin was really supporting when he made the big donation, of course, wasn’t the state itself but U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s quest to become its next governor. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future is the super PAC backing Vitter’s effort. In this first election season in which such political groups can collect unlimited donations, Rastin — who holds a Ph.D. in engineering from LSU, is vice president of a company that manufactures a type of compressor used in natural gas production and is a member of the billionaire Koch Brothers’ political network — is part of a new breed of megadonors who could well shape the state’s future leadership, whether they come from Louisiana or not.

Vitter, not surprisingly, is well ahead of his rivals in tapping into these giant donations. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future took more than $1 million in the most recent reporting period and is sitting on $4.4 million in cash. That’s on top of the $5 million cash on hand in his old-fashioned campaign account, amassed from donations that are limited to $5,000 a pop. None of Vitter’s rivals has much more than $2 million to spend in his combined traditional and super PAC accounts.

Rastin’s $150,000 donation was the single largest figure listed in the Vitter super PAC’s current report, but he’s got plenty of company. Others who’ve written big checks since the group was established include the American Chemistry Council out of Washington, D.C. ($150,000), Cheniere Energy, of Houston ($135,000), and GMAA LLC, of New Orleans ($110,000).

The PAC’s most generous benefactor is David Vitter himself — or, more specifically, the people who’ve been contributing to his congressional campaign account. The senator transferred a cool $950,000 from his senate fund to the super PAC, which legally cannot coordinate with the gubernatorial campaign but which is run by close associates.

The Vitter super PAC’s total take even includes $69,336 from the citizens of Louisiana or, rather, from the state’s risk management self-insurance program. The payout covers the group’s legal costs for successfully suing to overturn Louisiana’s law prohibiting contributions over $100,000.

You’re welcome, senator.

Vitter’s rivals are getting into the big-donor game as well, of course. Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle has a super PAC called Louisiana Rising, and it has its own extraordinarily generous out-of-state supporter, Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas CEO James Flores, of Houston, who donated $250,000. Things drop off steeply from there to Energy Transfer Partners, of San Antonio, which gave $50,000. Also on Angelle’s big donor list is Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, who donated $15,000. That sounds like a lot, until you consider the fact that Benson and his wife Gayle have donated a combined $37,500 to the Vitter group.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne’s super PAC, Now or Never-Louisiana, has collected $170,000 from just four donors. The donations include a $100,000 check from a Baton Rouge neonatology practice called InfaMedics; $50,000 from Matt McKay, of All Star Automotive; and $10,000 from Sheriff Newell Normand, who hails from Vitter’s home base of Jefferson Parish.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the lone major Democrat in the field, is also the only contender who doesn’t have his own super PAC — although some of his supporters are getting into the game, too. Gumbo PAC, the group headed by former state Democratic Party executive director Trey Ourso that’s been sponsoring those “Anybody But Vitter” billboards and online videos, is largely financed by four big plaintiff firms. Herman, Herman & Katz gave $50,000 and donated the cost of the billboards; Gordon McKernan, of Baton Rouge, and Cossish, Sumich, Parsiola & Taylor, of Belle Chasse, each gave $50,000; and Morrow, Morrow, Ryan & Bassett, of Opelousas, gave $25,000. Each also has donated to Edwards’ regular campaign account.

So in this case, I guess, the new super PAC rules allow donors to hedge their bets.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.