News that Earl Holt, president of the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, has donated $65,000 to Republicans, including Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum, has ricocheted around the media since The Guardian broke it last night. No wonder: It reveals a mere two degrees of separation between the racist murderer Dylann Roof, who says the CCC helped inspire him, and the GOP. It might be unfair to make this link if the support only went one way—after all, politicians can’t be held responsible for the views of everyone who gives them money. But the entanglement between the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Republican Party is longer and deeper than just a few checks, and for many years, it was mutual.

“The public sees the CCC and wants to think of it as an extremist group, which it is, but it’s also a group that’s had a foothold historically in mainstream politics,” says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Before his killing spree, Roof published a half-literate manifesto crediting the CCC for his radicalization. He describes typing “black on White crime” into Google following the Trayvon Martin killing: “The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.” After Roof’s screed came to light, the CCC didn’t bother to distance itself from the views of its sociopathic admirer. “[W]e utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed,” it says in a statement.

In a phone interview, CCC spokesman Jared Taylor elaborated on this legitimacy. “Let’s say Dylann Roof has a talent for programming. If he goes out to Silicon Valley, he will find that Apple and Intel have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to hire people who look like anybody but him,” he says. Another “legitimate grievance,” Taylor says, is the “overwhelming amount of black-on-white rather than white-on-black violence,” particularly rape.

Taylor sympathizes with the needs of Republicans like Cruz, who has returned the CCC’s donation, to distance themselves from the group. The presidential candidate, he says, “will come under tremendous pressure if he doesn’t give the money back. It’s not an easy situation.” That pressure has made it harder for Republicans to openly align with the CCC. “From time to time we have Republicans who are interested in our events, but it’s not as common as it has been in the past,” he says.

Indeed, in the past, Southern Republicans regularly patronized CCC gatherings; the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 38 elected officials appeared between 2000 and 2004 alone, including Roger Wicker, now a Mississippi senator, and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a major figure in the Christian right, spoke there in 2001. “Southern politicians going to CCC events is just a reflection of the GOP’s traditional Southern strategy,” says Cohen.

In the last decade, Republican politicians have realized that, in the age of social media, association with the CCC can be dangerous. An inflection point was the 2002 resignation of Senate majority leader Trent Lott—who spoke to the CCC at least five times—after a firestorm caused by his praise of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 third-party presidential campaign, remarks that were amplified by the blogosphere.

But the overlap between the CCC and the GOP has never entirely disappeared, particularly in South Carolina. Two years ago, for example, Roan Garcia-Quintana, a CCC board member and self-described “Confederate Cuban,” resigned his place on Governor Nikki Haley’s campaign steering committee after his links to the group made news. CCC webmaster Kyle Rogers—whose online store, Patriotic-Flags.com, sells the same Rhodesian flag patch worn by Roof in one of his photos—was a member of the Dorchester County Republican Executive Committee. (It’s also worth noting that high-profile conservative pundit Ann Coulter was defending the CCC as recently as 2009.)

This is part of why Republican candidates have been so hesitant to acknowledge that Roof was actually motivated by racism, despite his own unambiguous words. On some level, they realize that if they admit the truth, they will be held politically accountable. And it’s in that context that Holt’s donations are notable. “You can’t help it in this world sometimes who admires you,” says Cohen. “The much more damning thing for the Republican Party historically has been the legitimacy that it has conferred on the CCC.”