Part of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's fundraising secret, colleagues… (Steve Yeater / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — As he ponders a run for president, Haley Barbour would not seem a natural fit for the anti-establishment political mood now brewing: The governor of Mississippi is a longtime inside-the-Beltway operator who lobbied for the tobacco industry and other powerful interests.
But Barbour wields a key asset that makes him a potential heavyweight in a crowded GOP field: fundraising prowess born of decades as a Republican power player.
Presiding over his party's national committee and then its governors association, Barbour raked in donations with a ferocity that delighted Republicans, boggled Democrats and alarmed campaign finance watchdogs.
A savvy navigator of campaign finance rules, Barbour's aggressive tactics while leading the Republican National Committee — the record sums he raised helped the GOP take back the House in 1994 — prompted investigations by a congressional committee and the Justice Department.
During his recent chairmanship of the Republican Governors Assn., the group took advantage of states with the least-restrictive campaign finance laws to shuffle millions of dollars in donations around the country through various political action committees.
Part of Barbour's strength lies in his vast Rolodex: After serving as political director in the Reagan White House, he started what eventually became the most influential lobbying shop in Washington. When he successfully challenged the sitting Mississippi governor in 2003, he raised more than $11 million — almost triple the previous record.
But his tenure as head of the governors association represented perhaps his biggest coup, as he guided the organization to an astounding fundraising haul of $117 million in the 2010 cycle — double that of its Democratic counterpart.
"I think it's almost impossible to overstate his impact," said Nathan Daschle, then the executive director of the Democratic Governors Assn. "He just shattered our perceptions of what we thought was possible. We had always kept relative pace with them until Haley Barbour came around."
Barbour says there is no magic to his technique. "If someone is interested and wants you or your candidates to win, he or she will normally do what he or she is asked," he wrote in an email.
Part of Barbour's secret, colleagues say, is that unlike many politicians, he has no qualms about asking for money.
"I've been there when he asks someone for a million dollars, and he enjoys it," said Henry Barbour, his nephew and top political advisor.
The scrutiny from the Justice Department, Federal Election Commission and Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs stemmed from a $2-million loan he secured from a Hong Kong businessman in 1994 for a GOP think tank Barbour had started. The think tank used some of the proceeds to repay a loan from an RNC committee.
The FEC's general counsel recommended that the commission find Barbour and the RNC in violation of the federal ban on receiving money from foreign nationals, but the commission deadlocked. The Justice Department dropped the matter after a federal appeals court panel ruled the money did not constitute a political contribution.
At the governors association — whose chairmanship Barbour held from June 2009 until November — he moved quickly to expand the group's corporate donor base with a slew of new individual contributors. At the time, GOP donors were fleeing the party's national committee, then under the rocky leadership of Michael Steele.
"He believed in very aggressive goals," said Nick Ayers, then the executive director of the GOP governors organization. "I had already laid out a plan to raise more than double what had been raised before, and Haley said, 'That's not enough; I want to triple it.' "
At one meeting, staff members detailed plans to recruit 40 top business leaders to kick off a group called the Executive Roundtable, which required a minimum two-year commitment of at least $25,000 a year.
"He cut them off," said Henry Barbour, recalling his uncle's words: "Forty? We're going to get 400."
Barbour persuaded Fred Malek, a veteran GOP political hand, to chair the group. But he remained intensely involved, making monthly trips around the country to woo heavyweights such as FedEx Chairman Frederick W. Smith.
Ultimately, 588 donors signed up, most of whom had never before given money to the governors association.
Flush with cash, the organization found creative ways to distribute its wealth.
Michigan served as a veritable clearinghouse for the money. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, for example, gave the organization a total of $5.37 million between May and October of 2010, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.