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Ted Cruz's billionaire hedge fund backer emerges as top 2016 donor

Robert Mercer has pumped more money — $11 million — into the presidential election this year than any other individual donor.
Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz of Texas fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz of Texas fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa.

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has made clear he’s not afraid to lose friends and alienate people. There is one man, however, who’s unlikely to find himself on Cruz’s bad side anytime soon: An enigmatic hedge funder by the name of Robert Mercer, one of only a handful of billionaires who together have lifted Cruz out of the typically out-financed “base-candidate” category into his current status as a top-tier competitor.

Federal Election Commission filings released last week showed that the 68-year-old Mercer, who earns his fortune as co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, donated more than $11 million to Cruz-affiliated super PACs — or outside groups empowered by the 2010 Citizens United decision to accept unlimited sums of money from individuals and corporations to support a candidate, so long as those groups technically work independently of the candidate’s campaign. While the filings released at the end of July revealed that a number of GOP presidential hopefuls have been filling their campaign war chests with such million-dollar donations, no one has benefited more from this type of giving than Cruz. That’s largely because no individual donor has pumped more money into the presidential election this year than Mercer.

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Cruz is currently in second place behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican money race. Though he often likes to boast that he’s raised more “hard money” through his actual campaign — $14.3 million — than anyone else in the crowded GOP field, Cruz also enjoys the support of four wealthy super PACs that together have raised approximately $38 million. Nearly all of that money came from just three families, according to a New York Times analysis.

Both Cruz and Mercer are tight-lipped about each other; neither agreed to speak with msnbc for this story. But here are some things to know about the billionaire Cruz backer who’s outspending all billionaires.

His political interests are broader than simply sending Cruz to the White House

This isn’t Mercer’s first rodeo. For years, he’s spent millions on a variety of conservative political campaigns and causes, although it’s unclear exactly as to why.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, speculates Mercer repeatedly spent about a half million dollars trying to unseat him because of his support for curbing carbon emissions and implementing financial transaction taxes.

“It caused anxiety,” DeFazio told msnbc of the attack ads that suddenly began to flood the airwaves in Oregon. “For a while, you’re like ‘Oh god, how much money are they going to dump on my head?”

DeFazio said he was ultimately able to defeat Mercer’s money by highlighting to voters the fact that his opponent, Art Robinson, was being propped up by a “Wall Street guy” with no connection to the state of Oregon. But Mercer’s investments have paid off in other races. In 2014, he gave $1 million or more to the super PACs Club for Growth Action, which backed conservative candidates like Arkansas Senate winner Tom Cotton; Ending Spending Action Fund, which helped to defeat Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia; and John Bolton Super PAC, which supported North Carolina Senate winner Thom Tillis.

And Mercer isn’t one to simply write a check and walk away, said Kellyanne Conway, president of the Cruz-affiliated super PAC known as Keep The Promise I. On the contrary, she told msnbc, “Mr. Mercer is a man who is deeply involved with all of his investments,” though she declined to give any specifics. Asked what it was about Cruz that appealed to Mercer, Conway said it was Cruz's "willing[ness] to stand in a crowd of one or a crowd of a few."

RELATED: Ted Cruz goes after Supreme Court for ‘judicial tyranny’

"The GOP has tried the formula of moderate centrist with [John] McCain and [Mitt] Romney. It failed miserably," Conway said. "If the GOP tries that again, they get what they deserve, which is probably Hillary Clinton as president."

In addition to purely financing conservative candidates, Mercer appears to be taking on a greater role in running day-to-day political operations. Politico reported earlier this month that Mercer owns at least part of the data company Cambridge Analytica, which contracts with political campaigns and PACs to build models that identify and sort persuadable voters in early primary states by six key personality types. Campaigns then uses that information to target their outreach.

“With Citizens United,” DeFazio said, “we’re actually at a point where one random billionaire can change the course of an election and even the course of the country. That’s who Mr. Mercer hopes to be … someone who gives us a radical right wing president.”

He’s seen his fair share of lawsuits

While Mercer has proved to be quite generous with his political donations, he can be stingy with his money in other areas. In 2013, members of Mercer’s household staff sued him for not paying overtime and docking wages, according to Bloomberg Business. Workers said they lost part of their semi-annual bonuses for “failing to replace shampoos and other toiletries” when less than one-third of a bottle remained and “failing to properly close doors,” among other comparably miniscule missteps.

On a larger scale, four year earlier, in 2009, Mercer sued a model railroad design company, RailDreams, for allegedly overcharging him by nearly $2 million on an elaborate model railroad constructed and installed in his Long Island home. A district court in 2010 granted RailDreams’ CEO Richard Taylor’s motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance, has also attracted some legal scrutiny. Last year, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations accused Renaissance of using complex financial structures to skirt billions of dollars in taxes. At the time, the Internal Revenue Service had been investigating Renaissance for six years over the matter.

He’s kind of an indoor kid

A born math wiz, Mercer earned his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Illinois and designed complicated algorithms for IBM prior to joining Renaissance in 1993. Mercer is known for being a deeply private person who rarely speaks in public or to the press.

“I’m happy going through my life without saying anything to anybody,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010.

When he accepted the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award in the field of computational linguistics last year, Mercer told the audience his speech would be quite a challenge. Talking there for an hour, he said, “is more than I typically talk in a month.”His old boss is a major Democratic donor

No one could accuse retired Renaissance founder Dr. James H. Simons of discriminating in his hiring practices based on political affiliation. Simons, who recruited Mercer in 1993, is arguably as big a spender as his former employee, only he donates millions to the other side.

In 2012, Simons gave at least $2 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC aiding President Obama’s reelection, and $2 million more to two allied groups supporting Democrats in Congress. That made him the biggest Democratic super PAC donor in the country, according to The New York Times.

In 2014, Simons and his wife were the seventh highest mega-donors in the election, a Politico analysis found, having given $8.3 million to super PACs helping to elect Democratic congressional candidates. Anastasia Greenebaum, communications director at the Simons Foundation, said via email that Simons was on vacation and didn’t “have anything particular to add to discourse here.”

Propping up conservative candidates is a family business

One of Mercer’s three daughters, Rebekah Mercer, is emerging as a powerful conservative player in her own right. According to Politico, Rebekah Mercer is the primary driver behind the family’s political expansion, connecting Cambridge Analytica — their data company — with political committees and candidates. She runs the Mercer Family Foundation, which gives to a number of conservative organizations, and has donated money to several prominent Republicans including Mitt Romney, Iowa Rep. Steve King, and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

Hours after formally announcing his presidential ambitions at Liberty University earlier this year, Ted Cruz met with donors at a fundraiser in Rebekah Mercer’s Manhattan apartment.

Also a family bussiness: baking

Mercer’s three daughters own the New York City-based baked goods company, Ruby et Violette. According to one review from Yelp user Yado D., the “cookies and brownies are delish.”