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In Super PAC era, SC bundlers see their role diminished


COLUMBIA, SC –- John Rainey, a businessman here who has helped Republican candidates raise millions of dollars in previous election cycles, reminisced about John McCain asking him to join in some serious retail politics during the 2008 presidential primary.

“I was traveling with the senator and his mother. And I would introduce his mother, and his mother would introduce the senator. It was the old-fashioned way!” Rainey recalled. “It was really fun. We had a bus, and we’d go somewhere and it’d be 25 people.”

McCain flaunted the support of Rainey and his campaign’s other South Carolina campaign “bundlers,” who raise money for candidates through their business connections, to show his strength among members of the state’s well-connected business community, as well as his campaign’s fundraising prowess.

But four years later -- and after the rise of super PACs (groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations) -- the role of the bundler has been marginalized. Unlike Super PACs, bundlers are able to use their connections to raise the maximum of $2,500 per individual in a primary election.

For Rainey, that translates into fewer calls from campaigns asking for fundraising help.

“We haven’t been doing anything. I have not raised one dime,” he said. “It’s been more than one campaign who said, 'We really don’t’ need y’all to raise money in South Carolina.'"

And Rainey’s network of friends and colleagues, who coalesced so quickly first around George W. Bush in 2000 and then McCain in 2008, is supporting a disparate group of candidates, meaning whatever monetary heft they could provide is being broken up.

But as Saturday’s primary nears with the field no less fractionalized, this group of South Carolina business leaders decided to invite candidates to speak with them, in the hopes of eventually landing on one candidate to collectively support.

“Clearly electability is a key concern for this group who’s continued to gather,” said Terry Brown, the CEO of Edens, a retail developer whose Columbia offices played host last week to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who addressed a boardroom full of 10 to 15 business leaders looking to coalesce around one candidate. A meeting with Jon Huntsman was scheduled for 2 pm Tuesday before he dropped out Sunday, and the group is also working with Mitt Romney’s aides to schedule a session.

Some of the business leaders have already endorsed candidates. Rainey was in Huntsman’s corner; Brown endorsed Romney, and Eddie Floyd, a surgeon and prominent bundler who is also part of the informal group, had thrown his support to Rick Perry.

But Floyd said they were united in one objective: unseating President Obama. And he suggested that he and other members of the group who have already endorsed candidates might change their mind if another candidate was determined to have the best general election prospects.

“We need to get somebody that can win,” Floyd said.

Rainey said one of the reasons he and his friends had not fallen in line behind one candidate sooner was because none of the candidates this cycle instill the same excitement in them as have presidential hopefuls in previous years.

“There’s not anybody among my peers that’s passionate about anybody. The only thing anybody is passionate about is the idea and the objective of taking the White House,” he added.

Rainey expressed doubt, however, that the group could rally behind one candidate this soon before the primary, and said he would be looking towards Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach for prompts as to whom to support.

“Monday night’s going to be it. Somebody’s going to have to come through with a deal breaker or a deal maker -- say something that causes a paradigm shift where all of a sudden there’s a reason to coalesce behind one or two candidates. Hopefully one candidate,” he said.

And while it may be too late for the support of the bundlers to have any real effect in the primary, Brown says their main impact could come in supporting the eventual nominee.

“With these sessions, there’s some hope that the business communities will have to help fund some of the campaigns into the general election,” he said.

Yet given his concerns about being edged out of the fundraising game by Super PACs, Rainey said he wasn’t sure how much the endorsement of a handful of businessmen in South Carolina would matter this time around.

“Maybe we send out a letter, something like that,” he said, thinking aloud about how to help the candidate after the group has made a decision. “We’ll have coverage of some kind of announcement. But other than that, there’s not much else we can do. We can lend our name if that particular candidate -- assuming we can agree -- wants us to. I’m sure any one of us would be willing to do whatever their candidate wanted us to do.”