Sunday column: Money isn’t everything in 2016 TN campaigns

New financial disclosures were filed last week and, if you accept the proposition that the candidate with the most money usually wins a given race, they established clear frontrunners in most of Tennessee’s contested August primaries for seats in the Legislature and Congress.

But just maybe this is a summer for new exceptions to the general rule that money wins. In at least one legislative campaign, the biggest spender has become a clear underdog — Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who has spent $88,232 so far and has a cash balance of $122,147 versus just $13,247 in spending and a $28,312 balance for challenger Sam Whitson.

But then already-embattled Durham was hit with the equivalent of a $1 million attack ad with the release of a tawdry tale of his sexual exploits in Legislatorland. The guy now known as “Pants Candy” suspended his campaign on Thursday.

The “money wins” truism will be more interestingly tested elsewhere across the state.

In congressional races, the test will come in three decidedly different Republican primaries, the rest being foregone conclusions with well-financed incumbents assured of keeping their seats.

Consider the convoluted 13-candidate GOP primary in the 8th District for a seat being vacated by Rep. Stephen Fincher, who made his curious exit with more than $2 million stashed in a re-election campaign account. Money will surely be a factor there and if the cliché is true, then perennial candidate George Flinn, a self-financing multimillionaire, is the leader. But don’t bet on it. Big-time political donors, who like to go with a winner, certainly aren’t.

In the 4th District, challenger Grant Starrett is substantially outspending incumbent Rep. Scott DesJarlais, relying on self-financing and out-of-state donors, as DesJaralis eagerly points out. In the 6th District, challenger Joe Carr is being even more dramatically outspent by incumbent Rep. Diane Black, who can rely on both self-financing and traditional PAC support.

But both incumbents are understandably nervous in a year that seems to indicate a “throw-the-incumbent-bums-out” inclination within GOP voter ranks, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential campaign.

Former state Rep. Carr has enough name ID from his respectable showing, despite being dramatically underfunded, against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2014, to cause alarm in what will probably be a low-turnout August election. Black is thus skipping the Republican National Convention to campaign at home and spending more than $500,000 so far on TV ads.

Starrett is, like Carr, attacking an incumbent as entirely too liberal and part of the Washington establishment. Unlike Carr, he has enough money to get that message across, though lacking name ID. He’s paid for three TV ads so far; DesJarlais has paid for none so far — a cause for concern given that DesJarlais won by just 38 votes in the 2014 primary.

In legislative campaigns, virtually all incumbents have more money than their primary challengers and nothing to compare with Durham’s debacle to deal with. So, if the “money wins” rule holds true, they should emerge victorious.

A Knoxville example is in House District 18, where Rep. Martin Daniel faces three challengers, including former Rep. Steve Hall, whom he defeated in a close 2014 race. This time, Daniel as an incumbent has more contributions than all opponents combined ($40,285) and has added almost as much in self-financing. Easy prediction: Daniel prevails with more money, despite controversies in his freshman term, especially with three opponents to split up the anti-incumbent vote.

Perhaps a better test is in Senate District 4, where state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, is blessed by PAC donations and stashed funds from past years when unopposed for re-election to his House seat. As a semi-incumbent, he has a lopsided financial advantage over three opponents in seeking the Senate seat vacated by retiring Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Big donors, mostly PACs these days in legislative races, like to bet on winners in the vast majority of cases. Incumbents are usually a safe bet.

One might ask which comes first: The incumbency chickens or the donation eggs?

Usually, it doesn’t matter. They both win. But every now and then, the nest gets disturbed.