Tillis, Cunningham raising most money in Senate race. Where are they getting it from?

Sen. Thom Tillis is relying on big-money donors and industry political action committees to raise money for his 2020 re-election bid, according to an analysis of fundraising efforts in the North Carolina Senate race by McClatchy and the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tillis, a Republican, has raised $7.3 million for his re-election bid, with 48% coming from contributions of more than $200 from individuals and another 40% coming from political action committees. Tillis has raised just 4% of his money from small-dollar donors, defined as those who give $200 or less.

PACs typically give to congressional incumbents, but Tillis ranks second in the Senate for the 2020 cycle in PAC money received and other Republicans facing 2020 races have been able to tap into the small-donor network. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who like Tillis is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised 36% of his money from small donors from July through September as part of a record-setting $3.3-million haul in the third quarter of the year, The (Columbia, S.C.) State reported.

Tillis has received 601 campaign donations from people who hit the legal maximum the year they contributed, adding up to $2.6 million. As of now, individuals can donate up to $2,800 for the primary election and $2,800 for the general election.

“Senator Tillis has strong support from grassroots conservatives across the state, and we plan to highlight that enthusiasm in the coming weeks. Our campaign is pleased to have nearly five times as much cash on hand as our closest Democratic challenger, and we are confident Senator Tillis will have the resources necessary to win what we expect to be another record setting race in terms of spending, just like he did in 2014,” Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement.

Tillis faces primary challenges from retired Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker and Ayden farmer Sandy Smith. Three Democrats are running for the office: former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, state Sen. Erica Smith and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller. The general election is expected to be close, with several national analysts moving the race to “lean Republican” or “toss up.”

Tillis’ 2014 campaign against incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was the most expensive race in U.S. Senate history at the time, including campaign and outside funding with nearly $124 million spent on the election, according to the Center For Responsive Politics.

Tillis, the incumbent, holds a large edge at this point: He has $4.9 million cash on hand.

Cunningham, the top fundraiser on the Democratic side, has $1.1 million cash on hand, a figure that is far below that of other Democratic challengers hoping to take on vulnerable Republican incumbents such as Arizona’s Mark Kelly , Maine’s Sara Gideon and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper. Cunningham entered the race in June.

Cunningham has taken 58% from individual contributions over $200 and 14% from small donors. He has not reported any corporate PAC money, but has gotten 11% of his money from other PACs. Cunningham pledged in June not to take corporate PAC money in the election, though these PACs typically don’t back Senate challengers.

He loaned his campaign $200,000 and is involved in a joint fundraising committee that helps Democratic Senate challengers.

“Not only did Cal out-raise Senator Tillis in individual donations, but Senator Tillis had to depend on a corporate PAC money bailout just to keep up,” Aaron Simpson, Cunningham’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement, referencing third-quarter numbers. “Ninety-four percent of Cal’s contributions were less than $100, the kind of grassroots fundraising that Senator Tillis can’t match.”

2020 cycle

CandidateRaised SpentCash on Hand
Thom Tillis (R)*$7,321,116 $2,886,236 $4,921,294
Cal Cunningham (D) $1,728,081$607,053$1,121,028
Garland Tucker (R)$1,718,790$1,611,578$107,211
Sandy Smith (R)$264,898$198,427$66,471
Erica Smith (D)$133,801$78,232$55,681
Trevor Fuller (D)$31,598$30,038$458

Where is the money coming from?

Tillis has received more than $2.9 million from PACs, second only to Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who is also facing a tough 2020 re-election campaign. More than $2.4 million of that money has come from business-organized PACs, such as $10,000 from the US Anesthesia Partners PAC and $5,600 from the PAC for Charlotte-based US Radiology Specialists.

Both organizations were part of the lobbying coalition Physicians for Fair Coverage, which spent $4.1 million in the third quarter to lobby against legislation to cap the amount of money patients can be charged for out-of-network care — often known as surprise medical bills.

Tillis has received the second-most amount of money among senators from the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, trailing only Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Tillis, between his campaign and his leadership PAC, took in more than $408,000 from the pharmaceutical industry, 78% of that from industry PACs.

Leadership PACs, which are run by other members of Congress, have given $450,756 and lobbyists have donated more than $400,000 to Tillis’ campaign.

Tillis is listed as a recipient of at least 12 joint-fundraising committees, which are used to raise money for multiple candidates from big-dollar donors. He has raised $910,733 this cycle from those committees, which include the Tillis & Colleagues Victory Committee. That committee has raised more than $400,000 from seven donors.

Cunningham has raised $55,000 from the joint fundraising committee for Democratic Senate challengers. Titled 2020 Senate Impact, the committee brought in money from wealthy donors, including $5,600 from former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and $5,600 from billionaire hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel.

Tillis and Cunningham have raised the most money for the 2020 campaign.

Tucker has given his campaign more than $1.27 million. He has raised about $450,000 from contributors. Sandy Smith has raised $265,000, including a $30,000 loan to her campaign. She has raised more from small donors ($152,448) than she has from those giving more than $200 ($82,552).

Democrat Erica Smith has raised $133,800, which includes a $4,500 loan to her campaign. Smith, who said she is being powered by small donors, has raised less than $3,000 from contributions of less than $200. Fuller has reported raising $31,597 during the election cycle.

Top industries for TillisTotal



Securities and investment$1.2 million Lawyers/Law Firms $55,514
Retired$638,096Real Estate$52,001
Commercial banks$533,305Business Services$47,402
Real estate$496,198Misc Finance$31,151

* - figures include donations to campaigns and leadership PACs.

Outside spending in GOP primary

The American Foundations Committee, a super PAC supporting Garland Tucker, spent $254,000 to air a television ad that opens with an attack on “flip flop Thom Tillis.” The ad is airing on Fox News across the state.

“We believe in our conservative principles. We try and promote ideals consistent with that,” said Raleigh attorney Ellis Boyle, a member of the committee. “We support Garland Tucker for Senate because we know he is a true conservative who won’t flip-flop when he gets to Washington, D.C. Sen. Tillis pretended to be a conservative, but he’s settled right into the swamp.”

The Tillis campaign is airing ads accusing Tucker of lying about Tillis’ record on immigration and border security.

“Politician Garland Tucker. He lies like a dog, using deceptive editing to make it look like Tillis is against Trump,” the ad says.

The committee has reported one donation, $25,000 from Raleigh attorney Joe Knott, who is Tucker’s brother-in-law. The rest of its donors must be reported in year-end reports. In addition to Knott and Boyle, other individuals involved with the committee include Boyd Sturges, Palmer Sugg and Allie Ray McCullen, Boyle said.

The committee is trying to raise money from outside its members, Boyle said. In the past, the committee has supported Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican now in his fourth term in Congress. The super PAC spent $572,000 to help Holding in his 2012 primary and another $171,000 in his 2016 primary. In 2012, the super PAC was funded almost entirely by members of Holding’s family.

Holding said this week that he is not taking sides in the GOP primary.

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

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or