September 26, 2021

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Lindsey Graham gets more money from donors lacking disclosure than anyone else

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Senate candidates, mostly Republicans, are failing to report complete donor information for thousands of contributors accounting for millions of dollars in campaign cash. 

Among all Senate candidates running in 2020, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) received the largest percentage of money from donors that were not assigned an occupation. His campaign doesn’t provide employment information for donors who gave a total of $6 million. That’s about 19 percent of his fundraising haul from large individual donors. 

The Federal Election Commission requires candidate campaigns to make “best efforts” to obtain the full name, mailing address, occupation and employer of donors who give more than $200 in a given election cycle. When campaigns leave those fields blank, they leave voters with an incomplete picture of the interests bankrolling the candidate, and they often receive a sternly worded letter from the FEC. 

Even amid an unprecedented influx of money into 2020 candidates’ campaigns, most find a way to provide complete data about their donors. This cycle, Senate candidates raising significant money provide complete disclosure for 98 percent of their campaign cash from large individual donors, on average. 

Graham’s relative lack of donor disclosure hasn’t stopped him from calling for an investigation into donations made through Democratic fundraising firm ActBlue, which has processed billions of dollars in donations to Democrats. Graham made those remarks last month as he was being outraised by his Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison in a heated Senate race that has the most candidate spending of any congressional race in history.

ActBlue’s infrastructure has helped Democrats raise record sums from small donors, or those giving $200 or less to a given campaign. While campaigns are not required to collect information about donors giving less than that threshold, ActBlue does so for every donor, even those giving a single dollar, providing additional transparency. 

Republicans have seized on the fact that large numbers of ActBlue donors list themselves as “not employed.” That’s because the ActBlue donation portal asks donors whether they are currently employed, leading to retirees, students and homemakers to list themselves as “not employed.” Like any federal committee, ActBlue is required to make best efforts to obtain donor information for those giving more than $200. 

While Graham raised $6 million from donors providing incomplete information, Harrison raised about $800,000 from donors with no occupation information. 

Only trailing Graham by this measure is Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) who raised $4.3 million from donors with incomplete information. That’s about 14 percent of her fundraising haul from large individual donors. About 99 percent of campaign money going to her opponent, Democrat Mark Kelly, came from donors providing full disclosure.

Michigan Senate candidate John James gets about 15 percent of his money from donors with incomplete disclosure, compared to 3 percent for his opponent, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his Democratic opponent Amy McGrath have large amounts of money coming from donors with incomplete information, but that’s partially because they’ve raised so much cash. Together they’ve raised $143 million, placing the Kentucky Senate race among the most expensive contests. 

Unlike others in his party, McConnell has pushed back on Republicans’ calls to investigate ActBlue, noting that he has always been against government regulation of campaign finance. 

“Let me give a shout-out to the Democrats. The lion’s share of the money that’s flooding into campaigns is coming from small donors,” McConnell told reporters last month.

Whether campaigns will be fined by the FEC for failing to report donor information is an open question. Each of these campaigns have been flagged by the FEC for accepting numerous donations that exceeded legal limits. This is common for modern campaigns that sign donors up for recurring donations. 

For McSally, it isn’t the first time her campaign has gotten in trouble with the FEC. McSally’s campaign was fined $23,000 for failing to report donor information and violating contribution limits during her 2014 congressional run. The FEC did not levy that relatively small fine — which accounted for far less money than McSally raised beyond contribution limits — until 2019.

The FEC has struggled to enforce campaign finance laws over the last decade, primarily due to an ideological dispute between Democratic and Republican commissioners about the government’s role in regulating campaign money. The watchdog agency has been effectively shut down since July 4 thanks to the retirement of a Republican commissioner. 

President Donald Trump last week nominated two new FEC commissioners, one Republican and one Democrat, to restore the commission to five of a possible six members. But those nominations won’t be taken up until after the election, frustrating organizations that are pushing for stronger campaign finance rules. 

“These new nominations are too little, too late,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One. “It is a breach of trust with the American people that the Federal Election Commission has been missing in action most of this election cycle because it has lacked the quorum necessary to conduct most official business.”

Feel free to distribute or cite this material, but please credit the Center for Responsive Politics.
For permission to reprint for commercial uses, such as textbooks, contact the Center: [email protected]

Read more OpenSecrets News & Analysis: Campaign finance · Election 2020

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Karl joined the Center for Responsive Politics in October 2018. As CRP’s money-in-politics reporter, he writes and edits stories for the news section and helps manage a team of diligent writers. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Karl graduated from State University of New York at New Paltz in 2016 with a B.A. in journalism. He previously worked at The Globe, a regional newspaper based in Worthington, Minnesota. His email is [email protected]

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