This type of spending — which is usually channeled through nonprofit groups that do not have to disclose much information about their finances, including their donors — was embraced by conservatives after campaign spending restrictions were loosened by regulatory changes and court rulings, most notably the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case.
While progressives and election watchdogs denounced the developments as bestowing too much power to wealthy interests, Democratic donors and operatives increasingly made use of dark money. During the 2020 election cycle, groups aligned with Democrats spent more than $514 million in such funds, compared to about $200 million spent by groups aligned with Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of the groups financed by Mr. Wyss’s foundations played a key role in that shift, though the relatively limited disclosure requirements for these types of groups make it impossible to definitively conclude how they spent funds from the Wyss foundations.
Mr. Wyss and his advisers have honed a “strategic, evidence-based, metrics-driven and results-oriented approach to building political infrastructure,” said Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist.
Mr. Stein, who founded the influential Democracy Alliance club of major liberal donors in 2005 and recruited Mr. Wyss to join, added that “unlike most wealthy political donors on the right and left,” Mr. Wyss and his team “know how to create measurable, sustainable impact.”
Mr. Wyss, 85, was born in Bern, first visited the United States as an exchange student in 1958, and became enchanted with America’s national parks and public lands. After becoming wealthy while helping lead the Switzerland-based medical device manufacturer Synthes, he began donating his fortune through a network of foundations to promote conservation, environmental causes and other issues.
The foundations gradually increased their donations to other causes backed by Democrats, including abortion rights and minimum wage increases, and eventually to groups more directly involved in partisan political debates, particularly after Mr. Trump’s election.