White supremacist campaign donations: How did Republicans not know?

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum all got donations from Earl Holt III, head of a white supremacist group that appeared to inspire Dylann Roof.

Chris Keane/Reuters/File
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks with voters during a campaign stop at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville, S.C., last month. This week, his campaign has said it will donate contributions made by a white supremacist to a fund to help victims of the Charleston, S.C., shootings.

Why didn’t Ted Cruz (or Rand Paul or Rick Santorum) know that campaign donor Earl Holt III is the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization?

That is one of many questions, following the revelation that all three Republican candidates for president – and many other GOP politicians, dating back at least to 2004 – accepted donations from Mr. Holt. The British newspaper the Guardian broke the story Sunday.

Holt’s racist writings came to light following last week’s massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, was apparently influenced by Holt. A website registered to Mr. Roof contained a manifesto crediting the Council of Conservative Citizens for the author’s knowledge of “brutal black-on-white murders.”

Which goes back to the donations – and how the Republican Party, already struggling to attract minority voters, can overcome this public-relations blow.

The answer to the original question – why Senator Cruz and the others didn’t know about Holt – is that campaigns receive thousands of donations, and don’t have the staff to investigate the background of every donor. Typically, only when a donor’s unwelcome affiliation is brought to a campaign’s attention does the campaign take action.

For now, though, campaigns may have to step up their game in going through donor lists and checking for potentially problematic names. The use of guilt-by-association can be a powerful campaign tool, and candidates usually want to expunge controversial people from their midst as quickly as possible. 

“They’re going to have to at least look through their donations, particularly those running for president, to make sure there aren’t more items like this,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “This is a very time intensive process. It’s not, ‘Let me hit "find" on a Word document.’ ”

When asked by the Guardian, Cruz’s campaign said it would return its donation from Holt. Senator Paul’s campaign says it’s donating its Holt money to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund, a charity set up to support the families of the Charleston shooting victims.

Former Senator Santorum is doing the same.

"It was brought to my attention late Sunday evening that an individual who led a group cited by the murderer who terrorized the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston had given to one of my past political campaigns,” Santorum said in a statement. “Rather than put more money back in the pockets of such an individual, my 2012 campaign committee will be donating the amount of his past donations to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to support the victims of this tragedy."

"I abhor the sentiments Mr. Holt has expressed,” Santorum continued. “These statements and sentiments are unacceptable. Period. End of sentence. Our campaign is about, and has always been about, uniting America, not dividing her."

But even when and if all the Holt money is disposed of – including donations to Bush-Cheney ’04 and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney – the Republicans’ challenge on racial matters is far from over.

“It’s a big challenge, because the media narrative is that this is the party of old white men, and it’s something they’re trying to get rid of. With that come connotations of racism and sexism,” says Mr. O’Connell. “Even when it’s not true, it still sticks to them.”

Republican presidential candidates have faced criticism for not immediately labeling the attack on the churchgoers as racially motivated, or a hate crime, even before Roof’s apparent manifesto came to light. A hate crime is designated by authorities only after the motivation of the perpetrator has been determined.

Republicans have also faced tough questions over what to do about the Confederate flag that still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia. To many people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and slavery, while to others, it signifies Southern heritage.  

Cruz, a senator from Texas, said while campaigning in Iowa over the weekend that the flag is “a question for South Carolina.”

“And the last thing they need is people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it,” he said, according to The New York Times.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading GOP contender in 2016, said on Facebook over the weekend that his position on the Confederate flag issue is “clear.”

“In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged. This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina and our prayers are with the families, the AME church community, and the entire state. Following a period of mourning, there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I'm confident they will do the right thing.”

Romney, the last Republican nominee, and frequent sideline commenter on the issues of the day, was more forthright in his recommendation, via Twitter.

Soon after, President Obama endorsed his former opponent’s position with a retweet.


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