WASHINGTON — When Mark Sanford was running for his old congressional seat three years ago, he had to make it through the home stretch without the National Republican Campaign Committee’s help.
“He knows what it takes to win elections,” an NRCC spokeswoman said at the time to explain away the decision to pull financial support after Sanford’s ex-wife smacked him with an embarrassing trespassing complaint.
Lucky for the NRCC, the excuse turned out to be prophetic. Sanford — a congressman-turned-governor whose national potential evaporated in 2009 when he disappeared on the job to visit his mistress in Argentina — went on to trounce his Democratic opponent in the 2013 special election by a 54 percent-45 percent margin.
It also ended up being a case of money not being a deciding factor. Though Sanford walked away with the most cash on hand, Democratic rival Elizabeth Colbert Busch out-raised him nearly 5-1 over the course of the campaign.
Things could be different when Sanford faces off in June against state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, his first primary challenger since returning to Capitol Hill. Both are relying on in-state contributors to reinforce their 1st District connections, but the latest fundraising numbers from the Federal Election Commission show Sanford with a huge financial advantage.
According to the year’s first quarter filings, Sanford raised $122,382, giving him $905,789 cash on hand.
Horne reported earning $50,803 in the first three months of 2016, with a mere $15,536 remaining in her campaign coffers at the end of that period.
Sanford, who has built his political persona around his famous frugality and his disregard for the rituals of Washington culture, downplayed his cash haul habits. But having money doesn’t hurt — something that can’t be lost on Sanford during this second congressional tenure. And though political observers agree Horne’s challenge is a longshot, the cash discrepancy paints a picture of Sanford’s power. And Sanford is the beneficiary of some powerful money.
Sanford has a complicated relationship with campaign contributions. When he first ran for Congress in 1994, he eschewed contributions from political action committees and corporations, lest it create an impression of being beholden to special interests. His change of heart took place during his time as governor when he started to accept donations from a more diverse array of wallets — PAC money included. Rejecting those same donors back on Capitol Hill would have been hypocritical, he argues, and it doesn’t mean he’s undergone some major philosophical transformation.
“The preponderance of my contributions has always been individual contributions,” he said. “I pulled the numbers. Seventy-two percent of my contributions this quarter came from individuals. The other 28 percent would be from PACs. That’s an inverted number from most folks out there.”
Sanford compared his numbers with other Republicans in the South Carolina House delegation. “Jeff Duncan, 15 percent individuals. Trey Gowdy, 24 percent individuals,” he ticked down the list. “Mick Mulvaney and Joe Wilson have higher numbers of individual donors, but not as high as mine — around 60 percent each. Tom Rice had 30 percent, right around Jeff Duncan’s number in terms of individuals versus PACs. We had 228 individual contributors in the first quarter, and most of those were $100 or under.”
Sanford, however, has been making the fundraising rounds. In the first three months of 2016 he collected $9,499 from six different PACs associated with railroads. Though Sanford is on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he isn’t on the subcommittee with railroad jurisdiction and there isn’t a major bill pending before Congress that deals with the industry.
He didn’t have an explanation for the influx of rail money, other than to say, “the money doesn’t just flow in the door. You have to call and say, ‘help me out.’”
Other contributions were more consistent with Sanford’s district and legislative portfolio. He received $2,500 from three PACs associated with real estate and housing development — industries with deep interest in the Lowcountry economy. Sanford also took in $2,500 from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association PAC (he’s on the aviation subcommittee) and $1,000 from the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association Boat PAC (he represents a coastal area).
Sanford, who has a reputation for flouting leadership on major legislative efforts, has also endeared himself to influential colleagues in the past three years. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., dipped into their leadership PACS and gave Sanford $5,000, $2,500 and $2,000, respectively.
If Sanford is so far ahead of Horne in the fundraising game, he insists it’s not because he’s trying any harder or doing anything differently than he has in the past.
He also minimized any significance to his first quarter haul, which is larger, if modestly, than any of his quarterly collections since 2014. His second best quarter in the past two years was in July 2015, when he posted collections of $121,153. In the next three month window, he raised $103,861. In all the other quarters he never exceeded five figures.
Ultimately, he suggested his campaign contributions are a product of years of relationship building and his constant presence around the district.
“Show me a member of Congress who will do open office hours after 4 p.m.,” he said. “Or neighborhood office hours at a Piggly Wiggly, or what was a Piggly Wiggly, where it’s a complete free-for-all and you don’t know if someone’s going to love you or going to hate you.”
Horne also laid claim to having in-state support, though it sits miles behind the incumbent. Her only out-of-state contributions came from a New Jersey retiree and the PAC for a Nebraska-based construction services firm.
“All of my contributors are individuals, and mostly South Carolinians and a lot of folks who have given to me in the past have confidence in my ability to represent them in Washington,” said Horne, who earned a national profile last summer with her stirring address in support of taking down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
“I’ve got folks who are donating $25 all the way up to $2,700 dollars,” she said. “I appreciate the $25 donations as much as the $2,700 donations.”
As for Sanford’s lead in the money game, Horne said political observers shouldn’t read too much into that.
“No one will give to a challenger of an incumbent,” she said. “People are reluctant to give money because they are afraid of the backlash if that person loses.”
But she still had some news she wanted to share.
“To date, I’ve raised $102,023.74,” she said. “I did exceed the 100 grand mark. I feel very good about it.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.