Little Outside Spending But Lots Of Self-Funding In South Carolina Special

Republican Sheri Few, a candidate for an open South Carolina House seat, chastises politicians for removing Confederate memorials in her ad. (Sheri Few for Congress YouTube Channel)

By: Ashley Balcerzak

While you're not seeing much in terms of cheesy outside group ads in South Carolina's special election, there's no shortage of unique messaging going on in the race. Turn on the TV and you can catch one of candidate Sheri Few's ads, in which she's holding an AR-15 and condemning lawmakers from removing Confederate flags and monuments from public spaces.

"Weak politicians are too quick to blame a horrible tragedy on a flag, or a gun, or even free speech," says Few, clutching a rifle in front of a stars-and-stripes backdrop. In another, she accuses two of her rivals of starting "a war on our history. Now they're renaming streets and colleges and destroying monuments to confederate soldiers."

Few is one of seven Republican candidates, who, along with three Democrats, are competing in the May 2 primary to fill South Carolina's 5th Congressional District seat after Mick Mulvaney resigned to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

While the candidates have engaged in the usual scramble to bring in campaign funds -- albeit in a concentrated four-month time frame -- they've shown an uncommon willingness to put up their own money. Ralph Norman Jr. (R), a state representative and real estate developer, leads the pack with at least $614,000 raised; half of that is money he personally loaned his campaign. Democrat and Goldman Sachs senior adviser Archie Parnell ranks No. 2 with $333,000, including $180,000 he donated.

Attorney and State Guard commander Tom Mullikin (R) also lent and donated his campaign a bundle, $224,000, to reach a total of $317,000. Republican state Rep. Tommy Pope gathered $226,000, $30,000 of which he borrowed from his personal bank account. And Few loaned her effort $8,500, bringing her fundraising total to over $63,000.

"There's not a lot of press attention to this election to spike the interest, so the candidates have to make up for it out of their own" pockets, said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and a Republican campaign consultant. "The fifth district is spread out over several counties and the crescent of Charlotte, and the problem is you can get people to give for a general but it's very hard in a primary to get that kind of attention most of the time."

*Includes pre-summary data through April 12, and $1,000+ donations through April 25

The only two outside players include Rampart PAC, a super PAC set up in 2016 to support former Rep. Marlin Stutzman's (R-Ind.) Senate bid; it has spent $12,500 on digital advertising to back former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly. The other, Hometown Freedom Action Network, has which spent $130,000 to produce and air ads backing Pope.

Rampart PAC reported only a handful of donations, the largest of which was $15,000 from a nonprofit called Faith Wins Action, which was incorporated in February. It lists as its address a three-bedroom house in West Columbia, South Carolina owned by Martin Andrew McKissick, who also gave $5,000 directly to the PAC. The Republican Party paid a Martin McKissick $26,000, including travel expenses, in the last election cycle, and a Drew McKissick is a Republican strategist in the state.

Hometown Freedom Action Network has not filed a full FEC report yet this year, but received $101,000 from Citizens for a Working America, which has ties to Ohio dark money groups like Government Integrity Fund and former Republican Governors Association officials like Nick Ayers. The group's YouTube channel doesn't yet show any South Carolina videos, but includes two ads from two years ago against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and one promoting Don Ytterberg (R), a 2014 candidate who lost his race for a Colorado House seat. The group's website also leaves much to be desired. (It's fair to note that South Carolina 5 hasn't seen much outside activity since the 2010 election when Mulvaney beat out incumbent Democrat John Spratt Jr., with the help of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Club for Growth.)

"That money looks good, but it doesn't have as much payoff for ads because you're spending on a very expensive market, probably Charlotte, where three-fourths of them live in North Carolina," Woodard said. "That was a constant headache for us, putting money up for voters that can't vote for you."

A candidate would have to get more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday to avoid a runoff between the top two finishers. Woodard posits two of three Republicans -- Pope, Norman, and Connelly -- will make it to the June 20 runoff in the deep red district.

Outside action in the Palmetto State is dwarfed by what's happening in Georgia, which holds its faceoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel on June 20, and Montana, where there's a primary on May 25.

As we reported earlier, Georgia's race is quite the battleground for outside groups, and features a Democratic newcomer who has raised a historic amount of money. Ossoff didn't quite nab the required 50 percent to automatically win in the April 18 primary, so he is now up against Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state; it's a much harder battle now that the Republican field isn't fractured. President Trump himself was scheduled to help Handel fundraise Friday after his keynote address at the National Rifle Association convention. National party groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and the NRCC continue to report six figure ad-buys to help keep the seat in Republican hands.

Even the Treasure State race is garnering attention from high places, with Bernie Sanders campaigning with the Democratic contender and local folk singer, Rob Quist. He's up against Republican Greg Gianforte, a founder of a software company who ran unsuccessfully for governor, but is looking to have a much better chance in this race: Polls show him leading Quist by 15 percentage points.

The Congressional Leadership Fund ($1.6 million) and the NRCC ($324,000) have done some spending in the race (though not as much as in Georgia), while interest groups such as the National Rifle Association ($185,000) have faced off against Planned Parenthood Action Fund ($28,000 as reported to the FEC). The NRA attacked Quist and boosted Gianfort, while Planned Parenthood recently announced it launched a six-figure ad buy backing Quist.