Politics & Government

Powerful donors pad Lindsey Graham’s coffers for 2020 re-election bid

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. AP

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham raised more money in this year’s second fundraising quarter than he, or any other Republican Senate candidate in South Carolina, ever has before in the same time frame.

His more than $3 million haul from April through June alone shows his strong standing in South Carolina politics, where he has been enjoying renewed popularity thanks in large part to his alliance with President Donald Trump.

Nearly 550 South Carolina donors, giving more than $200 each, contributed to more than $264,000 — or 14% — of Graham’s total second-quarter haul.

His fundraising success sends a strong message that the leading Democrat hoping to face off against him next fall, Jaime Harrison, must continue to raise money aggressively beyond the $1.5 million he collected in the same fundraising window — primarily from grassroots supporters energized around defeating an increasingly polarizing incumbent.

While Harrison’s haul this quarter was buoyed primarily by sought-after small donors, Graham has relied more on big-dollar fundraisers, political action committees and campaign bundlers.

Though Graham raised just over $700,000 from individuals giving less than $200 — representing less than one-fourth of his fundraising haul over the last three months — that is still a significant, even high, number of small donors for an entrenched incumbent.

The senator’s early fundraising success also signals to challengers that he has a powerful hold on donors who can give the kind of money necessary to finance a competitive statewide race.

Those supporters this quarter include deep-pocketed industry lobbyists and political action committees who want to curry favor with the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

Graham took a total of $319,000 in checks from PACs that included industry giants like Pfizer, Home Depot and Amazon. The American Association for Justice’s PAC was among Graham’s top bundlers, raising $60,450 for his campaign.

Tens of thousands of dollars went into Graham’s campaign between April and June via so-called “bundlers” — Republican supporters who collect money from other donors on a candidate’s behalf and contribute the cash in one lump sum. Bundlers for Graham this quarter hailed from Connecticut, Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Registered lobbyists at Washington firms Fierce Government Relations and Republic Consulting reported raising $47,000 and $44,600 for Graham’s campaign through June, respectively.

Graham courts powerful donors

Graham has been laying the groundwork for months to build the narrative that he is a power player with little to fear ahead of his 2020 re-election.

The Seneca-native seeking his fourth Senate term kicked off his campaign in March with two rallies in different parts of South Carolina alongside Vice President Mike Pence. He rolled out endorsements from each of the state’s Republican statewide constitutional officers and GOP members of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is facing his own competitive Democratic challenger in Amy McGrath, gave Graham $10,000 through his leadership PAC — the maximum amount permitted.

In other power plays, Graham has raised money through separate joint-fundraising committees, where donor money is split between one or more campaign committees, leadership PACs or political parties. Those committees often are created to facilitate one or many major fundraisers, as was the case with the one Graham established earlier this year with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, another incumbent up for re-election in 2020.

According to a source familiar with Graham’s campaign, Collins and Graham joined forces so that both lawmakers could attend the same event to save time for the benefit of a major fundraiser who wanted to raise money for both candidates. The pairing makes sense, however, as both candidates played pivotal roles in the confirmation of then-embattled Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The Graham-Collins effort raised nearly $330,000 primarily from Missouri donors. There are no further plans at the moment for the two lawmakers to team up again, but they could in the future.

This past quarter, Graham formed another such committee, the Graham Majority Fund, with Graham’s Senate campaign, his leadership PAC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee all listed as recipients. This kind of committee allows Graham to maximize the amount of money he can raise from donors to help himself in 2020.

This quarter, the Graham Majority Fund accommodated multiple major fundraising events, including one in Beverly Hills, Calif. According to filings, Graham’s campaign spent thousands of dollars for event catering and photography, plus $3,503 to the private charter jet company Sun Air Jets LLC.

The joint committee raised $772,650, including $670,450 from California donors. Graham’s Senate campaign pocketed $404,566, while $86,805 has gone to Graham’s leadership PAC and $127,864 has gone to the NRSC.

This story was produced in partnership between McClatchy and OpenSecrets. Redistribution for any purpose requires permission from both parties.