While one bold plan to enhance to the political power of the Legislature’s partisan caucuses sank into the 2013 session sunset last week amid considerable media clamor and political rhetoric, a subtle plan with the same general goal was quietly positioned for passage.
Sen. Frank Niceley was author of plan No. 1, which would have allowed Republican state legislators to pick the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate while Democratic legislators chose the Democratic nominee.
The Strawberry Plains farmer pitched his proposal as a way to fix a broken Washington, delivering “a little history lesson” about how the Founding Fathers fashioned things so legislatures directly named a state’s U.S. senators until the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1913.
Niceley’s critics focused on the simple fact that the his proposal would eliminate the right of average Republican and Democratic voters to choose their party standard bearers in a primary election. Another criticism was that the old pre-1913 system produced some real episodes of corruption in the legislative deal-cutting process — at least in other states.
Virtually ignored by both sides was the most intriguing aspect of Niceley’s plan: It would substantially reduce the impact of money in the political system.
As a practical matter, no one can be elected to the U.S. Senate in Tennessee today except the very rich or those with the capability of raising multiple millions from people who for some reason are ready to help him or her. That financial reality means no credible candidate will even try. Witness Sen. Bob Corker’s re-election in 2012 and — barring the sudden appearance of a mystery multi-millionaire — Sen. Lamar Alexander’s re-election next year.
There hasn’t been a seriously contested U.S. Senate election since 2006. Winning the Republican nomination then cost Corker about $4 million. Going up against Alexander for the GOP nomination next year in credible fashion would take, just as a guess, $6 million or so.
On the other hand, if Republican legislators picked the GOP nominee, going up against Alexander in credible fashion might not cost a dime for a person known and liked by the supermajority. And there are several such folks. (Actually, Alexander was not affected since the change would not take effect until after the 2014 election.)
Power plan No. 2 in Legislatorland was authored by House Republican Leader Glen Casada, a very astute politician. Unlike the Niceley bill, it is all about money. Earlier this year, Casada had contemplated a straightforward bill to simply repeal all contribution limits in state political races and let the money flow everywhere it will. But he abandoned that notion in favor of a bill (HB743) that enhances the power of the GOP caucus he chairs. (And, in theory, the Democratic Caucus).
The bill simply raises the amount of money that a caucus — or a political party — can give directly to legislative candidates. In the case of a state Senate race, the limit is bumped up from $40.000 to $150,000.
We’re talking direct money to a candidate. The caucuses and parties typically spend much of their money in support of a candidate — or in bashing the favored candidate’s opponent — through “independent expenditures.” There’s no limit now on such independent expenditures.
Now, $150,000 is pocket change in a U.S. Senate race. But in a state Senate race, it’s a fortune. The equivalent, maybe, to giving an Alexander challenger $6 million. With independent expenditures to come, if necessary.
Bear in mind also 1) current law puts much lower limits on what a regular PAC or corporation can directly give a legislative candidate — $11,200 in the case of a state Senate candidate, a standard not changed by the bill; and 2) current law puts no limit whatsoever on what can be given by a PAC, corporation or individual to a caucus or political party.
Ergo, the bill gives caucuses and parties expanded capacity for giving to chosen candidates to go with its unlimited capacity for collecting money to distribute. Regular PACs are stuck at the status quo limits, except for status quo unlimited gifts to a caucus or party.
The clever Casada move, then, pushes fundraising and campaign spending power in legislative races into the hands of the caucuses. That provides substantial, if indirect, control of elections. And nobody complains.