WASHINGTON – GOP megadonors and allies of President Trump are helping Sen. Thom Tillis bulk up his campaign war chest as he heads into a 2020 re-election race that promises to be one of the most expensive in the country.
The North Carolina Republican has racked up contributions from GOP billionaires, energy company CEOs, pharmaceutical executives, conservative legal activists and other influential donors so far this cycle, according to his most recent campaign finance filings.
Tillis has raised about $6.5 million and still has about $4.4 million in the bank, according to his latest report that tallies contributions through June 30. The cash reserves give Tillis an early advantage over his competitors as he prepares for what could be a tough primary followed by a general election next November that Democrats see as critical in their bid to regain the U.S. Senate majority.
Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker, who’s running against Tillis in the GOP primary slated for next March, raised about $1 million between his campaign launch in early May and the end of June. But the bulk of that came from the candidate himself, who loaned or donated about $850,000 to his campaign. He started July with $108,000 in the bank.
Cal Cunningham, a former North Carolina state senator who entered the race in mid-June and is seen as the early Democratic front-runner, raised about $722,000, including a $200,000 loan from himself. Cunningham had $683,000 in cash at the end of June.
Tillis’ early fundraising advantage isn’t surprising, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“I think Republicans recognize that North Carolina is going to be one of the key states to winning or losing the Senate,” he said.
Some GOP donors may want to “make sure they’re on the board backing [Tillis] early on because he does have a primary challenge,” Kondik added. And GOP donors who want to back the “establishment incumbent, which I think is a fair way to describe Tillis,” would “like to deny any oxygen to that primary challenge.”
Some of Tillis’ donors this campaign cycle include prolific Republican donors, like billionaire Nevada casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson. The Adelsons each donated $5,600 to Tillis’ campaign in late June, according to the records. That’s the maximum amount an individual can donate to a federal candidate per cycle, including $2,800 for a primary and another $2,800 for a general election.
Sam Zell, the billionaire chairman of Chicago-based Equity Group Investments, also contributed $5,600 to Tillis’ campaign in late June.
Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who worked for Trump in Florida before Trump was elected to the White House, donated $2,800 to Tillis in June. Ballard was dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” by Politico last year.
Paul Singer, a billionaire and founder of the New York hedge fund firm, Elliott Management, donated $5,600 to Tillis in April.
Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the New York private equity firm Blackstone, donated $5,600 to Tillis’ campaign in March.
Help from Trump’s ‘judge whisperer’
The North Carolina senator also received contributions from influential conservative legal activists.
Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo — who is widely credited with helping the GOP to reshape the federal courts and was dubbed “Trump’s judge whisperer” – has donated $4,300 to Tillis’ campaign this cycle. Leo advised the White House during the Senate confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Washington Post reported.
Leo donated $2,800 to Tillis in May of this year. The campaign had already donated $1,500 on March 20, 2017, the same day that Gorsuch began his confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Tillis was a member.
The following day, Tillis praised Gorsuch. “I like your track record on the bench,” he told the then-Supreme Court nominee, McClatchy reported at the time.
The Post reported that “few people outside government have more influence over judicial appointments now than Leo.” The newspaper’s May investigation described the Trump confidant as “the maestro of a network of interlocking nonprofits working on media campaigns and other initiatives to sway lawmakers by generating public support for conservative judges.”
Tillis voted to confirm both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
In June of this year, the Federalist Society’s chairman — Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor Steven Calabresi — donated $2,800 to the North Carolina senator.
Calabresi has been chairman of the Federalist Society’s board of directors since 1986; he worked in the White House for President Ronald Reagan and clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Energy, pharmaceutical execs
Tillis has also received campaign cash from CEOs of major energy companies and from the heads of major pharmaceutical operations.
Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma billionaire and CEO of the oil and gas company Continental Resources Inc., donated $5,600 to Tillis in June. Hamm, who built his billions on hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as “fracking”), was an informal campaign adviser to Trump in 2016 and was reportedly considered for a post as Trump’s energy secretary.
Tillis, a proponent of fracking, made headlines in 2012 when he refused to allow a lawmaker to change her vote on a controversial fracking bill. Tillis, then the North Carolina House speaker, would not let the Democratic lawmaker switch her accidental “yea” vote – a critical vote that allowed lawmakers to override the governor’s veto of a bill aimed at clearing the way for fracking in the state.
Thomas Farrell, CEO of Dominion Energy, has donated $5,300 to Tillis this cycle.
Pharmaceutical executives have also contributed to the North Carolina Republican. Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla each gave $5,000 to Tillis’ campaign in February. Dave Ricks, CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, gave $2,500 in February.
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the States Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.