With apparently both ideology and issues in mind, political action committees are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in attempts to unseat incumbent members of the state Legislature’s Republican Supermajority, according to financial disclosures filed last week.
In 35th House District, for example, the Tennessee Federation for Children, a group that supports school vouchers, spent close to $75,000 between July 1 and July 28 in independent expenditure money either attacking incumbent state Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach, R-Rutledge, or supporting his primary opponent, Jerry Sexton.
That compares to about $57,000 that Roach has spent on his entire campaign this year — including financial support from Gov. Bill Haslam’s PAC, House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC and donations from several fellow GOP legislators. It gets close to the $80,000 that Sexton, a founder of a furniture manufacturing company who lives in Bean Station, has spent in personal funds to finance his campaign.
The attack on Roach, a 20-year veteran of the state House, apparently is motivated by one issue. He was one of two Republicans to vote against school voucher legislation in a House subcommittee last legislative session and is now the top target of the PAC, which spent a total of about $150,000 in July seeking to influence the outcome of legislative campaigns.
The newest big player in legislative PACs is Advance Tennessee, created on July 15, then promptly funded with $150,000 in donations from wealthy individuals and other PACs, most with a history of contributing to moderate Republican politicians — including Haslam and Harwell.
The PAC then spent most of its money either attacking incumbent Republican legislators — generally those known as among the General Assembly’s most conservative members — or supporting their challengers.
Top targets include Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna in the 49th House District and Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Johnson City, in the 6th House District. The PAC spent about $42,000 in independent expenditures on each of the two races, mostly through attack ads on TV or through direct mail, records show.
That compares to just $9,683 in campaign spending by Sparks during the same period and $4,475 in spending by his opponent, Robert Stevens. Van Huss and Clayton Stout, his opponent, spent about $15,000 each in the same period.
Other incumbents targeted by Advance Tennessee include Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville,and Reps. Tony Shipley of Kingsport and Rep. Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville. The spending against them was in the $8,000 range for Campfield and Rogers; and about $14,000 in Shipley’s case.
The Tennessee Journal reports that the PAC’s treasurer, Caleb Crosby, is also treasurer of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC. The group is using a Washington, D.C., address.
Under Tennessee’s campaign finance rules, PAC spending after July 28 need not be reported until after the election. Both Advance Tennessee, which relied mostly on in-state donors, and Tennessee Federation for Children, largely funded by transfers from its parent organization, American Federation for Children, had money remaining in their accounts on July 28. And, of course, new money can be funneled into the PACs instantly.
Tennessee Federation for Children is one of three major PACs operated by organizations promoting school vouchers and other education reforms under the general theme of “school choice.”
Besides attacking Roach, its PAC also offered support to legislators deemed friendly to the cause who face challenges in Republican primaries. Those including Rogers, Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge; Rep. Steve Hall of Knoxville; Rep. Glen Casada of Thompson Station; Rep. Ron Travis of Dayton; Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah; Rep. Debra Moody of Covington; Dawn White of Murfreesboro; and Sen. Mae Beavers of Mount Juliet.
StudentsFirst, another national organization promoting “school choice” reforms, spent more than $185,000 through its Tennessee PAC in the July 1-28 period and still had $52,000 cash in hand. Some of the spending was in local school board races. Most of its money is sent into the state from the national organization.
The PAC’s money in legislative campaigns generally went to supporting incumbents or attacking their challengers. An exception was a $5,000 donation to Phil Carriger, who is challenging Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.
Hill, on the other hand, got the maximum $7,400 contribution allowed for a PAC in a House race from the Tennessee Education Association. The teachers’ union, which spent a relatively modest $38,000 in the last reporting period but had $166,000 in cash on hand, also gave smaller donations to Van Huss,, Sparks, and several other incumbents. It also donated to Shipley’s challenger, Bud Hulsey.
A third school choice advocacy PAC, Stand for Children, reported spending $21,770 on postage and printing in the most recent filing — presumably for direct mail pieces to come — and otherwise ran up a $51,000 negative balance in its account. That would appear to indicate an anticipated last-minute influx of donations into the PAC and specific direct mail pieces then being sent out on races not identified in the most recent report.
The new Advance Tennessee PAC, which appears dedicated to unseating more conservative legislators, outdid PACs that in 2012 were dedicated to trying to unseat more moderate Republicans and support more conservative candidates.
Truth Matters, founded by Nashville health care business millionaire Andrew Miller and largely dependent on donations from him and his brother, spent $39,800 in July. That included a $5,000 donation to Eddie Smith, seeking the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, and aid to candidates challenging House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin along with Reps. Vance Dennis of Savannah and David Alexander of Winchester.
Another PAC tied to Miller, Tennesseeans for Truth in Government, spent about $23,000 attacking Sargent or supporting his challenger, Steve Gawrys, and about $16,000 supporting Rogers. TN8PAC, which got a $10,000 contribution from Miller last year, gave $5,000 to Gawrys in the most recent report, it’s only candidate-supporting expenditure.
Haslam’s PAC, which earlier in the year spent about $100,000 to back challenged Republican incumbents, including Roach, reported no new direct spending on specific candidates in its new report. But it did report spending $37,000 on “research and polling” and $57,000 cash on hand — a possible indication of last-minute donations to come.
PACs controlled by Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey reported no new spending on behalf of legislative candidates in the latest reports, though Ramsey — as previously reported — put $425,000 into a group pushing for ouster of three Democratic state Supreme Court justices. Harwell now has more than $1 million at her disposal for campaign spending with a cash on hand balance of $567,169 in her PAC and $493,104 in her own campaign account.
More than 600 PACs are registered for spending money in Tennessee political races, an increase of about 45 percent in 10 years, according to the state Registry of Election Finance.