Politics & Government

McConnell raises millions, but most of his money comes from outside Kentucky

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised a healthy $3 million for his 2020 re-election campaign from April through June and has a whopping $7.9 million in the bank. But just 9 percent of his campaign cash from large, individual donors came from his home state of Kentucky.

Instead, most of his money came from out-of-state donors, reflecting the Kentucky Republican’s strong influence on the Senate agenda and national interest in the race as the GOP strives to keep the Senate in its control.

The lack of home state dollars could give potential challengers an opening to criticize McConnell as out of step with the state, while McConnell has emerged as a top Democratic target and national groups looking to oust him are already raising millions.

Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a Kentucky congressional election last year, reported raising $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign and has drawn widespread national interest. She entered the race on July 9. The latest reports cover a period that ended June 30.

In addition to raising money for his own Senate campaign, McConnell drew more than $610,000 from four committees that partner with fellow Republican senators facing reelection. The committees raise massive sums from fundraisers backed primarily by wealthy executives and corporate PACs. Less than $20,000 came from Kentucky donors.

McConnell raised the third most money among Senate candidates in the second quarter of the year. But the Kentucky Democratic Party mocked the haul as “mediocre” and singled out the lack of dollars from Kentucky as “not a great showing for America’s most unpopular senator.”

McConnell raised nearly $182,000 from Kentucky donors who gave more than $200, representing less than one-tenth of his big-dollar haul. Donors from New York ($281,000) and Texas ($216,000) gave more.

The lack of campaign cash from Kentucky isn’t new or unusual. Thirty-one states gave more money to all federal candidate committees in the 2018 midterms than the Bluegrass state, which accounted for just over $18 million in contributions.

In her losing campaign against Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, in 2018, McGrath raised $8.5 million, but three-quarters of her large-dollar contributions came from outside Kentucky.

McConnell’s campaign made it clear Tuesday that it would counter questions about his out-of-state fundraising by pointing to his opponents’ supporters. Noting that actresses Alyssa Milano and Bette Midler tweeted in support of McGrath, McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden said McGrath’s campaign is “funded by a who’s who of left wing celebrities in Hollywood” and that the campaign would be “thrilled” to revisit the issue when McGrath’s reports become public later this year.

Ditch Mitch, a national group formed to counter McConnell, also raised only a small fraction of its money from Kentucky.

One of the short-lived joint fundraising committees, a partnership between McConnell and Sens. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina and Martha McSally, R-Arizona, raised over $405,000 from seven individual donors. McConnell took more than $75,000 for himself.

In Kentucky, McConnell has played a big part in reshaping the state’s political landscape, turning the state House and Senate red in 2017 after decades of Democratic power. Even as McConnell focuses on his own race and boosting Republican ranks on the federal level, he’s also focused on state party building, with his cash-rich political action committees routinely contributing to nearly every Republican state office holder.

Despite his role as a zealous defender of President Donald Trump, McConnell hasn’t tapped into the small donor base that has catapulted Trump and some of his allies in Congress to massive fundraising numbers.

McConnell raised $340,000 from donors giving less than $200 from April through June. That figure is far less than the small-donor hauls from some of Trump’s top allies in Congress, including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ($411,000) and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California ($1 million).

Instead, McConnell draws from major corporations’ political action committees and their executives hailing from outside of the Bluegrass state.

He’s already received six figure contributions from affiliates of New York City investment firm Blackstone Group, along with over $88,000 from Georgia-based United Parcel Service, nearly $66,000 from Indiana-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co and $50,000 from affiliates of Florida’s GEO Group, the private prison contractor that runs several federal immigration detention facilities.

Of senators up for reelection in 2020, only endangered Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, has collected more money from political action committees than McConnell in 2019. Gardner collected $1.32 million compared to McConnell’s $1.25 million.

McConnell’s reliance on corporate political action committees, along with his support for unlimited independent political spending ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, has made him a top target of left-leaning groups advocating for campaign finance reform. Chief among them is End Citizens United, which has pushed Democratic candidates to reject contributions from corporate PACs.

McGrath, who won’t file her numbers with the Federal Election Commission until October, got off to a hot start. But her campaign was swiftly plagued by a series of early blunders, including retracting a statement that she would have supported Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite allegations of sexual assault.

The McConnell campaign was well prepared for a McGrath announcement, branding the Democrat as “too liberal” for Kentucky in an online attack launched the same day McGrath kicked off her campaign.

Despite his low approval ratings, which he has maintained for more than a decade, McConnell hasn’t come close to losing his seat, which he first won in 1984.

In 2014, McConnell raised and spent more than $30 million against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who raised nearly $19 million but lost to McConnell by 15 points.

He also faced a primary challenge that year, but soundly defeated now-Gov. Matt Bevin by more than 20 points. This time, McConnell has sought to shore up his right flank, aligning himself closely with Trump and making the confirmation of Trump judicial nominations a top priority.

One election cycle earlier, McConnell spent more than $21 million, including a $2 million personal loan, to beat Democrat Bruce Lunsford, who put nearly $8.6 million of his own money into the race.

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

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
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