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Charlotte has become an ATM for some presidential candidates

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Carson headlined his fourth one in the Charlotte area Thursday night.
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Carson headlined his fourth one in the Charlotte area Thursday night. Getty Images

North Carolina voters won’t get to make their presidential picks until mid-March – weeks after this month’s South Carolina primary.

So why are some of the White House wanna-be’s already showing up in Charlotte?

To raise money. For Democrats and Republicans running for president, the Queen City has become an ATM.

Instead of speaking at rallies and appearing in TV ads, like they are in South Carolina, the candidates coming to Charlotte headline fundraisers that are closed to the public and the press. These affairs are held in luxurious homes and at country clubs, where the would-be presidents meet and pose for pictures with business executives, lawyers and other well-heeled partisans willing to make campaign contributions of up to $2,700.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, was in town last month for her second fundraiser here, while Dr. Ben Carson, a Republican, headlined his fourth one in the Charlotte area Thursday night.

“Charlotte is a very passionate town for both parties,” said Felix Sabates, a NASCAR team owner and Mercedes dealer who hosted a fundraiser last year for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., now emerging as a favorite of the GOP establishment. The 100 people who showed up at Sabates’ Seven Eagles home each paid at least $1,000.

Charlotte, with the financial resources of banking and energy, makes it a location (for candidates) to cultivate that cash.

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

Counting the haul from these fundraisers as well as individual contributions, Charlotte-based donors gave a total of $754,137 to presidential candidates through the end of 2015, according to a breakdown by zip code from the Federal Election Commission.

Charlotte was by far the top-giving city in North Carolina. The total for Raleigh: $456,108.

Donors in North Carolina overall gave $4.2 million to presidential candidates through Dec. 31, including $2.7 million to Republicans and $1.5 million to Democrats.

In South Carolina, where much of the campaigns’ early cash will be spent, contributors gave $3.6 million. Democrats collected $581,670, most of it going to Clinton. Republicans raised $3 million, but nearly half of that GOP total went to one candidate: South Carolina’s U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, who ended his short-lived presidential campaign in December.

Donors in two South Carolina cities – Charleston and Greenville – gave more overall than those in Charlotte. But the biggest share of contributions from both places went to home-state senator Graham.

After Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the national spotlight will shift to South Carolina, where Republicans are voting on Feb. 20 and Democrats on Feb. 27.

North Carolina won’t hold its primary until March 15. But political observers say Charlotte’s proximity to South Carolina will make it tempting for those presidential candidates still left standing this month to include a money stop in the city on their way to or from campaigning in, say, Rock Hill.

“If you could do a ‘two-fer” – replenish your war chest (with a Charlotte fundraiser) and bank votes (in upstate South Carolina) – that would be a trip worth making,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “Charlotte, with the financial resources of banking and energy, makes it a location (for candidates) to cultivate that cash.”

Clinton, Carson on top

Last year, Democrat Clinton raised the most money in North Carolina ($1.2 million) and in Charlotte ($282,722). The runner-up: Republican Carson, who raised just shy of $1 million in North Carolina and $187,402 in Charlotte.

Neal Harrington, Carson’s N.C. finance director, said he tries to do at least half of his candidate’s in-state fundraisers in the Charlotte metro area.

“It’s the largest fund-raising hub in the state,” and twice as fruitful as the next largest one in the state (Wake County/Raleigh), said Harringon, a veteran fundraiser for North Carolina Republicans whose past clients have included now-Gov. Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick.

In an election cycle, Harrington said he could stage 60 to 70 fundraisers in Mecklenburg County alone and still have more potential donors left to tap.

Like the city’s economy, he said, Charlotte’s donor class is becoming more diverse. Besides long-time givers – bankers, auto dealers and those in real estate, health care, energy and NASCAR – Harrington said leaders of technology companies are also coming forward.

Among Democrats, Charlotte lawyers are also among the biggest givers, according to the FEC reports.

Harrington said the “Old Guard” living in Charlotte’s 28211 zip code – Myers Park, South Park and Queens Road West – continues to host and donate, but there’s also newer givers in 28277 – Piper Glen and Ballantyne – who want to financially support their candidates of choice.

And they want to rub shoulders with them, too. “People want to meet a presidential candidate,” said Harrington, who had 60-plus contributors at Carson’s Thursday night fundraiser at the Speedway Club in Concord, where tickets were $250 for “Guest,” $500 for “VIP,” and $1,000 for “Host.”

Carson can use the money: His poll numbers have been plummeting and he’s cutting staff.

Clinton, meanwhile, is engaged in a fierce battle with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has relied on a mass of mostly small donations – in North Carolina and nationally – to fund his campaign.

Charlotte businessman Mark Erwin, a U.S. ambassador under President Bill Clinton, said Charlotte is on the Clintons’ money map because they have forged friendships and political partnerships here over the decades.

Erwin co-hosted both of Hillary Clinton’s most recent Charlotte fundraisers. The first was at the home of Erksine amd Crandall Bowles. He served as President Clinton’s chief of staff; she was at a classmate of Hillary’s at Wellesley College.

Many Clinton supporters with means have already given her the $2,700 maximum donation allowed for each election. Still, Erwin said he expects her to have more Charlotte fundraisers – and maybe soon.

Rubio connection

Sabates says it was his sister’s connection to Rubio that brought a phone call from the senator last year. As head of the Republican Party in south Florida in the late 1990s, she had talked Rubio into making his first run for office – city commissioner for West Miami.

The two families also share a Cuban ancestry – like Rubio’s parents, Sabates, 70, left the Communist island nation and settled in the United States.

Rubio “called me on the phone and said, ‘How about helping me out with a fundraiser?’ ” Sabates said. “And I told him, ‘Name the date.’ 

The event was held last September. The Rubio campaign told Sabates it wanted to raise $75,000. The total ended up being closer to $100,000 after 20 or so donors who couldn’t make the date sent checks.

The campaign had a guest list, and so did Sabates, who invited some fellow Cuban-Americans as well as one notable from the NASCAR world – Rick Hendrick.

Also in attendance, Sabates said, were Gov. McCrory and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

The fundraiser lasted four or five hours, and culminated with remarks from Rubio.

“He’s one of the brightest young politicians I’ve ever met,” said Sabates, who added that he’ll host an even bigger fundraiser for Rubio if he gets the GOP nomination.

Clinton fundraiser

Clinton’s fundraiser at the Bowles’ home off Providence Road was also held last September – right before the first quarterly filing deadline since Clinton launched her campaign.

It was important to raise a lot, partly to try to scare off Vice President Joe Biden, who was then thinking of challenging her for the nomination.

Clinton’s stop in Charlotte was part of a coast-to-coast “cash dash,” as Politico put it at the time. The day before coming to North Carolina, she was in California – a state that gave presidential candidates more than $41 million last year. On the day after the Charlotte fundraiser, Clinton was in Manhattan – another money mecca – for an event at the 40/40 Club, a lounge owned by rapper Jay-Z.

Erwin, who has known Hillary Clinton for 30 years, agreed to co-host the event at the Bowles home as well as the one in January, at the Foxcroft home of philanthropists Phillip and Amy Blumenthal.

The hosts’ job?

“We secure a location, then work on donors to come and meet her, greet her and listen to her campaign talk,” Erwin said. “It’s all about networking with people who knew Hillary or knew of her and like her and want to be associated with her.”

The campaign and hosts also agree on a financial goal, said Erwin, who estimated the turnout at about 140 for the Bowles event, which asked donors to give $2,700, and at more than 150 for the Blumenthal fundraiser, where the asking began at $500.

Nearly $400,000 was raised at the first fundraiser; checks are still coming in for the second one.

The Clinton fundraisers drew attorneys, business executives, activists, and at least one local celebrity – Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist who writes the “Bones” novels.

Charlotte businessman Marc Friedland, who was chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party last year, attended the fundraiser at the Bowles’ home.

So did the Secret Service.

“We had to go through presidential security to get in the house,” Friedland said, describing how donors were bused in from a remote parking lot and waved with portable metal detectors. “(Clinton) came in through the kitchen after everybody else was there.”

Still, Friedland said the more intimate format was a good showcase for Clinton, who can seem stiff at big rallies.

“I was struck by how personable she was,” he said. “In that group, she could have been your neighbor. It felt like she was talking to you.”

Carson’s four events

Republican Carson, whose fundraisers attract a mix of business executives, physicians and people drawn by the candidate’s religious faith, has held four events in the Charlotte area.

And even with the dip in his poll numbers, Harrington said, people still come to see him and contribute to his campaign.

“They believe he’s a man of moral integrity,” said Harrington, who would not disclose how much was raised at any of the fundraisers.

The biggest North Carolina fundraiser for Carson was also held last September, in the south Charlotte home of Michael and Candace Salamone. He’s the CEO of Arcadia Homes, Inc.

Since then, Harrington has rented venues – including Myers Park Country Club in January and the Speedway Club last week.

“The Speedway is a draw: Everybody likes to see the track,” he said.

Still, Harrington said, “a home is always better” as a fundraiser locale.

His reason?

The Federal Election Commission allows the host to volunteer his or her home –an in-kind contribution – in addition to giving up to the $2,700 maximum donation allowed by law.

That in-kind contribution can offset the cost of putting on the event. And that means the campaign can keep more of the actual money raised.

Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.

Who got how much in Charlotte

Donors living in Charlotte gave $754,137 to 2016 presidential candidates through the end of last year, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Here’s a breakdown of the Top 10 recipients and their amounts:

▪ Hillary Clinton (D) – $282,722

▪ Ben Carson (R) – $187,402

▪ Marco Rubio (R) – $67,655

▪ Jeb Bush (R) – $49,800

▪ *Lindsey Graham (R) – $27,225

▪ Ted Cruz (R) – $27,177

▪ Bernie Sanders (D) – $25,584

▪ *Rand Paul (R) – $19,847

▪ *Mike Huckabee (R) – $17,300

▪ Carly Fiorina (R) – $16,793

* Has since ended campaign.

Source: Federal Election Commission

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