It advises the governor, a U.S. senator, a congressman, the state’s top prosecutor and a half-dozen other powerful S.C. politicians.
Its client list also spans Columbia, including its mayor and the state’s flagship university.
For years, the “Quinndom” – the Columbia-based Richard Quinn & Associates political consulting firm, headed by Richard Quinn – has been an institution in S.C. politics.
Recently, however, Quinn’s network of influence got an unexpected boost, when longtime political client Henry McMaster became S.C. governor, filling the vacancy left when Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to join the Trump administration.
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But the Quinndom – now at its political zenith, mentoring its first S.C. governor – also faces a threat.
Richard Quinn’s son – state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, a former S.C. House majority leader – and Richard Quinn & Associates were named in a state investigative report about possible corruption at the State House. Rick Quinn runs a mail marketing company with political clients, some overlapping with his father’s clients.
The ongoing corruption investigation, led by special prosecutor David Pascoe, first ensnared then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who resigned and pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in 2014.
In December, a state grand jury indicted state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, accusing him of misconduct in office and ethics violations. Merrill, now suspended from office, mentioned the Quinns to investigators, according to the report.
Another powerful client of the elder Quinn – S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson – also is entangled in Pascoe’s investigation. Wilson launched the investigation into Harrell, but later distanced himself from the probe, citing conflicts. Then, Wilson tried to re-enter the fray, firing Pascoe as special prosecutor, a move the S.C. Supreme Court blocked.
Now, as Pascoe’s investigation slowly progresses, the Quinndom find itself atop South Carolina’s political world.
But for how long?
Clients like family
The list of Richland Quinn’s influential clients includes state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and, more recently, powerful state senators in key posts.
Past clients include College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, when he was a state senator, Senate president pro tempore and lieutenant governor.
Quinn also is a longtime consultant to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, father of Alan Wilson.
Quinn runs a one-stop consulting and advertising shop, offering services ranging from campaign strategy to the crafting of mail pieces and television ads and handling the purchase of air time and postage for clients.
Quinn said his clients are like family.
“We do our best work for people that we really care about,” he said.
Quinn has a “very significant stable of candidates,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, who met Quinn in 1978 when Courson was contemplating a run for office.
The two worked together on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and have been friends since, said Courson, who has hired Quinn to run his campaigns. Since 2009, Courson has paid Quinn $533,000 for consulting and campaign work.
“He has probably the best analytical political mind of anyone I’ve ever known,” Courson said of Quinn.
A win for Quinn
McMaster’s rise to power gives Quinn a close ally in the state’s highest office, a post the two – politician and consultant – have sought to capture before.
Aided by Quinn, McMaster ran for governor in 2010, but finished third in the GOP primary behind then-little known state Rep. Nikki Haley and former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.
At a prayer breakfast Wednesday morning, McMaster joked he had attended the event as many things: a “regular lawyer,” South Carolina’s attorney general, its largely ceremonial lieutenant governor and now, as governor.
“This is my favorite way,” McMaster said.
Even before the term-limited Haley resigned, the 69-year-old McMaster was expected to run for governor again in 2018. But he would have faced an uphill climb in a race that likely would have pitted him against younger talents in the state’s GOP.
Now, the field of prospective GOP challengers has been pruned.
Like Haley, now-former U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, has joined the Trump administration. And U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, says he plans to stay in the Senate.
President Donald Trump also has given McMaster the advantage of incumbency.
In asking Haley to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Trump cleared the way for McMaster to become governor without a South Carolinian casting a single vote.
The shuffle widely is viewed as payback for McMaster becoming the nation’s first statewide elected official to endorse Trump, who later won South Carolina’s pivotal GOP primary.
McMaster’s fortunes also bode well for Quinn.
Asked whether it’s valuable to have the governor on the roster of candidates in the Richard Quinn & Associates – or RQA – stable, state Sen. Courson said, “Absolutely. The governor is the chief elected official in the state. To have that person as a client would be a huge plus.”
McMaster will have the advantage in next year’s GOP primary, and a win would be big for Quinn’s firm, which likely will consult for him, said Dave Woodard, a sometimes GOP consultant and Clemson University pollster.
“With a U.S. senator, and a governor, this is probably about the zenith peak of his influence,” Woodard said.
Other Quinn alumni – with ties to the consultant that go back for years – also are surrounding Gov. McMaster.
Trey Walker, McMaster’s chief of staff, worked for Quinn from 2000-03, adding to the firm’s roster of clients. Before that, Walker was the executive director at the state GOP, serving under McMaster who was chairman at the time.
Mark Plowden, another RQA alum, is McMaster’s deputy chief of staff, having previously worked for Attorney General Wilson.
(Walker and McMaster declined to comment for this story.)
Quinn’s orbit extends beyond the State House.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin paid RQA $99,100 from 2010-14 for consulting work. The Democrat, who stands out among Quinn’s overwhelmingly GOP clients, didn’t return requests for comment.
Quinn also has consulted for the University of South Carolina, which, in turn, once paid McMaster $191,000 a year to be a fundraiser for its law school and Walker $135,000 a year to be its chief lobbyist.
The university paid RQA $491,900 from April 2011 through May 2015, often in monthly payments of $9,500.
The firm provided USC with “assistance in research and issue analysis as well as the creation of strategies, themes and messages to support strategic university priorities,” spokesman Wes Hickman said in an email.
Decades in the making
A handful of actors have dominated political consulting in small South Carolina.
Quinn’s network is built on nearly four decades of political consulting in the state. However, the firm gained more prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, when McMaster was state GOP chairman.
In 2000, the competition between rival GOP political machines resembled “trench warfare,” one GOP activist said at the time.
That year, Katon Dawson ran to unseat McMaster as state party chairman, arguing the party’s 1998 losses to Democrats meant the GOP needed a change in leadership.
The contest pit Quinn, backing McMaster, against another veteran political consultant, Warren Tompkins, who was backing Dawson.
At the time, the Quinns had most of South Carolina’s Republican consulting business, said Dawson, a veteran of S.C. politics.
“They had everything they wanted. They left the scraps to everybody else,” said Dawson, who won the party’s chairmanship in 2002, when McMaster was elected to the first of two terms as S.C. attorney general.
The Quinn-Tompkins rivalry has endured through the years, with the two firms often working forcompeting Republican candidates in GOP primaries.
▪ In 2000, Quinn backed U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona for the GOP nomination for president.
But Tompkins, who ran the state GOP in the 1980s, played a prominent role in the campaign of eventual GOP nominee George W. Bush.
▪ Quinn has helped manage the campaigns of South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator – Graham, who also has hired Tompkins.
Meanwhile, Tompkins, who runs the First Tuesday consulting firm with Luke Byars, helped elect U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, who now runs the conservative Heritage Foundation, to the Senate.
▪ Today, Tompkins does work for the state Senate Republican Caucus and its majority leader, state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who has bucked Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Quinn helped Leatherman win re-election last fall.
Senate leaders come to Quinn
Leatherman is one of three powerful state senators who have paid Quinn for consulting in big races, two of whom came to RQA for help last year.
In last June’s GOP primary, Leatherman, who used to work with First Tuesday, faced opposition from two challengers and then-Gov. Haley and her PAC.
The most powerful legislator in the state, Leatherman is president pro tempore of the Senate, controlling its calendar. As Senate Finance chairman, he also leads the Senate’s efforts to write the state budget. And as a member of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, he helps approve state spending on roads and building projects.
Quinn’s firm also worked for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, another of Haley’s GOP primary targets.
In 2016, Leatherman and Rankin paid RQA $175,000 and $270,000, respectively.
‘Looked no further’
Quinn’s clients describe him as a friend skilled at helping them communicate their strengths on the campaign trail.
For example, Spearman, R-Saluda, said she met Quinn in early 1992 when she was thinking about running for a House seat.
Spearman said she called Bill Amick, a friend and powerhouse businessman in Saluda. “I went down to Amick Farms, and when I went into Bill’s office, he introduced me to Richard Quinn.”
Spearman, who was elected initially as a Democrat, said Quinn gave her some advice, but ultimately, she ran most of her House campaigns out of the trunk of her car on a shoestring budget.
“Fast forward to January 2014, when I was thinking about running for state superintendent,” Spearman recalled. “When I made my decision, I really had no other experience with any other consultants so I went to see Richard. I looked no further.”
Spearman said she knew her name recognition was low. Quinn’s firm came up with the “clever” play on the packaging of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum that became the look of her campaign with arrows on her signs, recalling the gum’s logo. The signs got people talking about who she was, Spearman said.
The Quinns were “very easy to work with, very supportive, worked with me because, obviously, I was not able to raise as much money as some of the other high-profile offices,” Spearman said, adding she had a “very good, friendly relationship” with Quinn.
“He told me, ‘I’m doing this for (the late) Bill Amick and you.’ ”
Their names and offices are different, but they’re in the same political family. Some of the powerful S.C. politicians in the orbit of GOP political consultant Richard Quinn:
S.C. Rep. Rick Quinn
Owner of Mail Marketing Strategies (MMS) and son of Richard Quinn, who owns the Richard Quinn & Associates (RQA) political consulting firm
▪ Has paid RQA $43,800 and MMS $14,600 since 2009
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster
▪ Has paid RQA $504,000 and MMS $7,700 since 2009 in successful races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and a failed 2010 bid for governor
S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis, R-Richland
▪ Has paid RQA $285,000 since 2010
S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, R-Saluda
▪ Has paid RQA $86,000 since 2014
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, R-Lexington
▪ Has paid RQA $252,300 since 2009
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca
Quinn is among the consultants Graham hires
▪ Paid RQA $371,000 since 2009
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale
▪ Has paid RQA $91,400 and MMS $116,000 since 2009
S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland
Senate Education Committee chairman, overseeing higher education in the state
▪ Has paid RQA $533,000 since 2009
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence
As Senate Finance Committee chairman, oversees the state budget; also, a member of powerful committees that approve state spending on roads and construction projects
▪ Paid RQA $175,000 in 2016
Former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell
Now president of the College of Charleston, McConnell retained Quinn while he was in the Senate
▪ Paid RQA $92,300 from 2011-13
S.C. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, overseeing the powerful law-writing committee
▪ Paid RQA $270,000 in 2016
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin
The only high-profile Democrat in Quinn’s client list
▪ Has paid RQA $99,000 since 2010
University of South Carolina
▪ Paid RQA $491,900 from 2011-15
Total paid RQA: $3,294,700
From 13 campaigns or institutions since 2009, includes campaign expenses such as postage and television ads
SOURCES: Public campaign finance reports filed with the S.C. Ethics Commission and the University of South Carolina