U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis says his campaign war chest helps make him the strongest contender in a crowded Republican field.
To begin the year, Tillis had $1.3 million in his campaign account – $1 million more than his challengers. Soon he is expected to announce another big fundraising number for the three-month period that ended Tuesday, likely putting him near the $2 million mark.
But the more donors Tillis recruits, the more questions his rivals raise about his ties to moneyed interests – and the legislation he oversees as House speaker.
Tillis’ campaign received about $21,000 from 15 registered state lobbyists in 2013, according to a News & Observer analysis of campaign finance records – donations he couldn’t accept as a state lawmaker.
North Carolina prohibits registered lobbyists from giving money to state candidates under an ethics law designed to limit the clout of special interests. But as a federal candidate, Tillis can accept the checks, even as lobbyists seek influence ahead of the legislative session May 14, a week after the Republican primary.
The lobbyists represent dozens of interests as varied as a pharmaceutical company, sustainable energy association, Amazon.com, cable television companies and the Autism Society.
“Some of them are people who agree with him politically and other people … may be people who want their phone call returned from the speaker’s office,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
Like Democratic rival Kay Hagan, who was a top state Senate lawmaker when she won her U.S. Senate seat in 2008, Tillis’ fundraising faces increased scrutiny because of his legislative power.
The second largest contributor to his campaign is EUE/Screen Gems, a movie studio company in Wilmington with credits that include “Iron Man 3,” HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” and CBS’ “Under the Dome.”
The studio is lobbying state lawmakers to extend the controversial film incentive program that awarded $77 million in tax credits to production companies in 2012.
Four members of the Cooney family, which runs EUE/Screen Gems, gave Tillis’ campaign a combined $20,800, citing the state tax issue as a factor.
“Every voter and every business has the opportunity to contribute to candidates who share their values,” Chris Cooney, the chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We are working to keep 4,000 film jobs in North Carolina right now. Our contributions go to candidates who share that same pro-job focus.”
Tillis has supported extending the film tax break but others in his Republican caucus oppose it.
Jordan Shaw, a Tillis campaign spokesman and his former legislative aide, said any perception about special interests getting favored treatment is unjustified.
“Political opponents can talk about perception, but their rhetoric doesn’t match the reality that Speaker Tillis has handled complicated legislative issues by bringing all stakeholders to the table and allowing the legislative process to determine the best outcome,” he said.
As for the lobbyist donations, Shaw said the campaign is merely following federal law, which allows them.
Other Tillis campaign donors overlap with legislative matters – and a separate super PAC supporting his bid.
Two Tillis allies that he supported for election to the UNC Board of Governors donated to his super PAC in 2013 and later gave to the campaign.
George Sywassink and his wife, who live in Hilton Head, S.C., gave a combined $10,400 to Tillis’ campaign on Nov. 7. R. Doyle Parrish and his wife, who live in Raleigh, gave $7,800 on Nov. 20, according to federal campaign finance records.
In a list circulated to lawmakers, Tillis urged GOP lawmakers to support both men in the March 2013 vote, despite concerns about Sywassink living out of state and Parrish being a registered Democrat. Tillis told his colleagues that he supported Doyle in part because he donated big money to his campaign in recent years.
Three months after the BOG appointment, Sywassink gave $25,000 to Grow NC Strong, a super PAC supporting Tillis’ Senate bid, records show. Parrish gave $20,000.
The super PAC’s treasurer, Cindy Marrelli-Watko, also wrote checks to both committees, donating $5,200 to Tillis’ campaign in November. Marrelli-Watko had previously given the super PAC $10,000.
Another Board of Governors appointee supported by Tillis, W.G. Champion Mitchell, gave the campaign $2,600 in June and donated an additional $25,000 to the super PAC the same month.
Altogether, the four families have contributed at least $106,000 to get Tillis elected, an analysis shows.
Federal rules prohibit the super PAC and the campaign from coordinating their efforts, but the two committees share the same fundraiser, Macon Consulting’s Jonathan Brooks of Greenville. Brooks has said he signed a “firewall agreement” to keep the two separate.
The donors have said their contributions were not related to the appointments. The Tillis campaign reiterated that it is following the law. “I would assume they would think Thom Tillis would make a great U.S. senator and they agree with his approach to governing,” Shaw said.
Other Tillis donors who overlap with the super PAC are tied to ACN Inc., a telecommunications company based in Concord whose method of selling has faced scrutiny from regulators.
ACN executives and their families were Tillis’ top contributor in 2013. CEO Robert Stevanovski also manages a company linked to TC Investor LLC, which gave $25,000 to the super PAC.
Rivals cite money in attacks
The big dollars from wealthy donors and special interest groups are providing plenty of fodder for his Republican rivals. It echoes a complaint Democrats have made against Tillis during his tenure as a state lawmaker and one they are carrying into the Senate race.
Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and Tillis’ closest rival, is criticizing Tillis for holding fundraisers at Washington lobbying firms, saying it makes him beholden to special interests.
Charlotte pastor Mark Harris is specifically making the donors elected to the university board an issue on the campaign trail, saying it raises questions about Tillis’ character.
Harris recently told Tillis in a letter that he has “managed to accumulate a list of actions that at the very least show terribly poor judgment, and at the worst, a lack of political character applied to the decisions you made.”
Both GOP rivals didn’t get enough donations in 2013 to conduct a broad analysis of their fundraising and they are struggling to get attention without money to fund television advertising.
Tillis’ campaign says he is raising the money needed to challenge Hagan, who is sitting on a huge financial advantage.
Her campaign had nearly $7 million on hand to start the year and will report millions more in coming days. Outside groups such as super PACs, on both sides, are prepared to spend millions on the race.
“I think the speaker has shown a pretty clear track record of leading his own agenda,” Shaw said. “When you’re running a successful campaign you’re going to be attacked by your opponents.”
Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.