Gov. Bill Haslam has stashed far less election year money in his political action committee — typically used to help political friends and build good will — than several other Tennessee officeholders maintaining such accounts, according to campaign finance disclosures filed last week.
A review of disclosures also shows U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, who announced last week that he will not seek re-election to the 8th Congressional District seat, has the highest cash balance in his own campaign fund than any other U.S. House member, more than $2.7 million. Among all Tennessee politicians, that’s topped only by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker with $5.6 million in his campaign bank.
In the case of federal officeholders, reports filed with the Federal Election Commission cover the final quarter of 2015, ending Dec. 31. State officeholders’ reports, filed with the Registry of Election Finance, cover the period July 1, 2015 through Jan. 15, 2016.
State House Speaker Beth Harwell continues to hold the highest cash balance in a leadership PAC operated by a Tennessee politician, $670,276. Harwell PAC collected about $106,000 in the reporting period — the biggest check being $25,000 from Nashville businessman David Ingram — and spent a little more than $78,000 in contributions to Republican House candidates, incumbents and two candidates in open seats.
Harwell’s PAC also transferred $10,000 to Harwell’s own re-election campaign account, which took in almost $240,000 in the period, almost all from special interest PACs, and spent nothing. The balance stands at $929,012, perhaps indicating she is building up the fund for future political endeavors.
The speaker is considering a run for governor in 2018 and could legally use everything in her campaign account for such a race. Use of money from a leadership PAC to benefit the operator’s own campaign is considerably more restricted.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who substantially depleted his leadership PAC in 2014 by spending more than $600,000 in an effort to defeat re-election of three Democratic Supreme Court justices, collected almost $308,000 for RAAMPAC in the reporting period and reported a cash-on-hand balance of $444,150.
The biggest check to RAAMPAC was $17,000 from TN Pain Surgery Clinic of Antioch, followed by the Tennessee Association of Realtors with $15,000. Ramsey’s PAC spent about $98,000 in the period, most of that going to his lead fundraiser, though it also spent about $12,000 on polling and gave $5,000 to Nashville mayoral candidate David Fox.
Ramsey’s own campaign fund gathered about $88,000 — the biggest check, $15,000, from Federal Express PAC — and reported $231,000 cash on hand. Ramsey spent $35,000 from the account, including donations to two state representatives.
Both Harwell and Ramsey are up for re-election to their legislative seats this year. Neither has an announced opponent.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is considering a run for Fincher’s congressional seat this year or a race for governor in 2018 while facing re-election to his current seat, collected $268,000 for his own campaign account with Federal Express PAC as top donor at $7,500. His cash balance stood at $541,748.
Norris’ leadership PAC, known as MPAC, collected $50,000 and reported a cash balance of $224,849.
State Sen. Mark Green, also up for re-election and also eyeing a 2018 gubernatorial run, put $300,000 of his own money into his campaign account, which now has a balance of more than $516,000. His leadership PAC, Green PAC, only has $22,530 cash on hand.
Haslam’s leadership PAC, named Jobs4TN, raised just $49,000 — mostly at an early January fundraiser — and reported a balance of $66,824. It reported no expenditures.
The governor’s 2014 re-election campaign account still has a balance of $870,350 after spending $171,220 in the reporting period — most going to the fundraising firm of Kaegi Resources and for polling. The Haslam campaign reported no fundraising, though collecting about $1,700 in interest payments. Haslam still lists $3.5 million he loaned his campaign in 2010 as an obligation, meaning the campaign can eventually use leftover money toward repaying himself.
Among members of the state’s U.S. House delegation, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood was second to Fincher in campaign account cash on hand with more than $2.2 million. She reported $65,143 in Marsha PAC, her leadership PAC; Fincher had just $22,497 in Frog Jump PAC.
A Fincher spokeswoman declined to comment to The Jackson Sun when asked what the soon-to-be-former congressman will do with the $2.7 million. Under federal law, he has several options — ranging from charitable donations to holding it for a future political race.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, yet another Republican eyeing a run for governor in 2018, reported more than $1.3 million in her campaign account and $37,501 in Diane PAC.
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. of Knoxville reported campaign cash at a little more than $1 million. He also reported a $262,055 balance in his Road to Victory PAC. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga, who has no leadership PAC, reported almost $932,000 cash on hand.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburgh reported $240,803 in his campaign account. A Republican primary challenger, Grant Starrett, has publicized his higher balance, $728,773, which includes self-funding. DesJarlais’ leadership PAC, TN4U, had a balance of $11,878.
Corker’s $5.6 million balance includes more than $300,000 raised in the last quarter, roughly matching his expenditures, which mostly appear to involve fundraising — about $47,000 went to Kaegi Resources. His Rock City PAC, after making about $170,000 in donations to Republican candidates across the nation, had a cash balance of $182,330.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, re-elected in 2014, reported a modest $186,470 in his campaign account but almost $520,000 in his Tenn PAC.
On a partisan basis, the disclosures show the political funds maintained by the Legislature’s Republican supermajority political funds have dramatically more money than their Democrats counterparts, though the difference is not as substantial for funds maintained directly by the two state party headquarters.
Insofar as Democratic leadership PACs go, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart’s Tennessee Tomorrow PAC was tops with a balance of $60,123 after collecting about $83,000 and donating $10,000 each to two Democratic House members facing strong GOP opponents, Reps. Bo Mitchell of Nashville and David Shepard of Dickson.
The Senate Republican Caucus PAC had a balance of $704,563. The Senate Democratic Caucus balance was $76,866.
The House Republican Caucus balance of $350,256 compared to $60,123 for the House Democratic Caucus.
The Tennessee Democratic Party PAC used to fund legislative races had a balance $113,651 after spending about $130,000 during the reporting period while the state Republican Party’s comparable PAC had a balance of $77,772 after expenditures of about $260,000.
The Tennessee Republican Party’s federal election account, after expenditures of a little more than $1 million in the period, had a balance of $142,825. The Tennessee Democratic Party’s federal election account, after spending about $660,000, had a balance of $67,731.
AT&T, depicted by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, as “the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far” during a news conference last week, reported $135,000 in donations to legislators by its PAC during the most recent reporting period. Gardenhire, sponsor of a bill opposed by AT&T that would allow electric utility systems to expand the areas where they can provide broadband service, was not among them. AT&T donations did include $10,000 each to Haslam’s PAC and Ramsey’s PAC; $13,500 to Norris’ PAC; and $7,500 to Harwell’s campaign account. Harwell said last week she does not believe the broadband expansion bill will pass this year.
Gardenhire did get $1,500 from the Tennessee Action Committee for Rural Electrification, which distributed $59,000 to legislators and their PACs. The PAC, representing electric utilities supportive of the bill, put $5,000 into Harwell’s campaign account and a like amount into Ramsey’s PAC, along with $3,000 into Norris’ campaign account.
PACs supporting school vouchers, up for a vote on the House floor Monday, continue to provide more money to legislators than PACs opposing them.
In the latest reporting period, Tennessee Federation for Children spent $95,811 while Tennessee StudentsFirst reported $60,313 in donations to state politicians. The two leading pro-voucher PACs thus had a total of just over $156,000.
The Tennessee Education Association, which runs the biggest PAC of groups opposing vouchers, distributed $81,416.
In the so-called “Tennessee Whiskey war” at the Legislature, the owners of Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg have been successfully defeating for three years attempts to amend the state law defining Tennessee whiskey — a definition critics say favors Jack Daniels over competitors. As a prelude to the 2016 session, Jack Daniels’ PAC distributed more than $100,000 in the reporting period — Including checks of $10,000 each to Harwell’s PAC, Ramsey’s PAC and the House Republican Caucus.