COLUMBIA — S.C. Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman won his Republican Party primary in mid-June, but state financial disclosures show it came with the heftiest price tag of any state Senate race, possibly in history.
Leatherman, R-Florence, spent more than $1.1 million this cycle to defeat two Republican challengers — while also taking on Gov. Nikki Haley — in the June 14 primary, campaign records show.
His spending equaled 65 percent of what House incumbent lawmakers spent this cycle — or roughly the total spent by the next four highest spending Senate candidates.
As the top-tier target of the pro-Gov. Nikki Haley political advocacy group A Great Day SC and other groups, Leatherman also took out a $750,000 loan for his Senate seat defense — an amount unheard of for a Statehouse race. But recent State Ethics Commission filings show Leatherman was buoyed by enough contributions from medical, legal and business professionals — among other donors — that he didn’t need to touch the loan.
“We used it to make it to make sure our area kept the senator they wanted,” Leatherman said of the money spent in defense of his seat. “The governor raised money to go against me. The S.C. Club for Growth came in, and Americans for Prosperity came in. And my people said ‘we don’t want outside groups like them coming in trying to buy a Senate seat.’ ”
Retired Francis Marion University political science professor Neal Thigpen, who follows Republican politics in the state, said Leatherman spent an “unparalleled” amount of money that left nothing up to chance as he won his tenth term in office.
“He runs a full-blown, exceedingly well-funded campaign that leaves no stone un-turned and he had plenty of foot soldiers,” Thigpen said. “One million dollars is an awful lot of money for just under 6,000 votes.”
Leatherman’s spending rivals what might otherwise be used to secure a seat in Congress. For example, future U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., spent $1.3 million to win the newly created 7th Congressional District seat in 2012.
Nearly all of Leatherman’s money came from in-state sources, with the medical and legal communities providing a significant chunk, along with money from business and utilities.
Leatherman’s two opponents were dwarfed in their war chests. Former Florence County GOP Chairman Richard Skipper and Florence County Treasurer Dean Fowler Jr. spent only $93,200 and $578, respectively.
John Crangle, director of the South Carolina branch of the public watchdog group Common Cause, believes Leatherman’s 2016 spending is a Statehouse record and “breaks the bank.”
“His ego is very involved in this and he and Nikki Haley hate each other,” Crangle said of Leatherman’s desire for another term at age 85. “He deeply resented Haley intervening in his election.”
The most expensive race Crangle recalled previously was when former Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, spent around $700,000, several years ago.
One of the biggest thorns to Leatherman was A Great Day SC which quickly raised more than $500,000 from local and out-of-state supporters of Haley in April. The money went to fund anti-Leatherman campaign activities, as well as efforts to take out other Haley incumbent targets in the state. Only state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, was defeated.
The record campaign cash raised and spent by Leatherman this year illustrates how entrenched lawmakers use the system to preserve their seats in Columbia, Crangle said.
“I think one of the reasons they like to hoard large amounts of money and roll them over is it has tremendous intimidation power against any potential challenger,” Crangle said. “The huge amounts of money are very problematic and basically mean most voters don’t get a choice in the general election.”
No Democrat or third party candidate filed for the seat, meaning Leatherman is almost assured re-election in November.