Campaign finance disclosures filed last week show state legislators facing challengers in the August Republican primary — but most of all Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is running for Congress — got considerable financial help from their colleagues.
Kelsey has now reported donations from 22 fellow senators and 26 current or former state representatives — all Republicans — in his quest become the fourth state senator to win a Tennessee congressional seat, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Collectively, the legislators have given “Kelsey for Congress (KFC)” more than $40,000 — most at $1,000 each, though a couple more and several less — and helped him to a fundraising lead among the 13 candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the 8th Congressional District. Kelsey of Germantown reported contributions of a little more than $700,000 as of July 1, a lead in fundraising, though George Flinn, a multimillionaire perennial candidate form Memphis who has loaned his campaign $2.7 million, is far ahead in spending.
Kelsey’s reported legislator contributions include $2,000 from embattled state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who last week suspended his own re-election campaign after a state attorney general’s report accused him of inappropriate interactions with sexual overtones involving 22 women.
The disclosures also show at least seven donations from lobbyists at the state Legislature. Tennessee law forbids direct donations to legislative candidates by lobbyists, though they frequently form — or manage — political action committees to make the contributions to avoid the law. And that law doesn’t apply when a legislator runs for Congress.
Another interesting Kelsey donor is Tom Lawless of Nashville, who serves as a board member of the state Registry of Election Finance, the panel that enforces state campaign finance law.
There’s further support for Kelsey from the judicial branch. State Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby chipped in to his campaign, along with Bill Young, who serves as top aide to Attorney General Herbert Slatery and who is currently under consideration for appointment to a Davidson County judge position by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Three current Tennessee members of the U.S. House — Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis along with Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood Diane Black of Gallatin— served as state senators before winning their U.S. House seats.
Both enjoyed financial support from legislative colleagues in their past runs, though not as much as Kelsey does currently. Both also donate occasionally to legislator campaigns — Cohen currently to former state Sen. Beverley Marrero, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis in the Democratic primary.
Give and take
While on the receiving end of fellow legislators’ campaign money, Kelsey is also on the giving end. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who served in the House before his election to the Senate, also maintains his own legislative re-election fund at the state level along with a political action committee, known as Red State PAC. Through those two vehicles, Kelsey reported — just in the second quarter while actively running for Congress — 11 donations to legislators totaling about $15,000. The biggest was $3,000 to Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, through Kelsey’s PAC.
According to the second-quarter state-level disclosures, Kelsey drained his own Senate re-election fund — he doesn’t face re-election to his Senate seat until 2018 — and sent more than $40,000 of the funds there to Red State PAC. The PAC then reported giving money to the legislative candidates, along with other expenditures — including, for example, $6,000 for “campaign workers.”
As reported by the News Sentinel in February, Smith and Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, used money given them by Durham — $3,000 in Smith’s case; $1,500 for Zachary — and used it to make charitable donations. That came after initial allegations in late 2015 that Durham had engaged in sexual harassment of female legislative staffers and lobbyists. Both said at the time the move came because of their strong disapproval of Durham’s alleged activities.
Contributions from Durham have since become controversial in other legislative races. The Tennessean reported last week that Beth Cox, opposing Rep. Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville in the 45th House District Republican primary, had called on Rogers to refund a donation from Durham, apparently received in 2012. Going back that far, reports filed by Durham for both his PAC and his individual campaign fund show dozens of donations to fellow GOP legislators — though only a handful last year and this year since Durham became infamous, including those to Smith and Zachary.
The Registry of Election Finance, which enforces state campaign finance laws, is also currently reviewing Durham’s disclosures at the request of the attorney general’s office in response to allegations that he illegally diverted campaign money to personal use.
Kelsey and Durham have been longtime political allies, together sponsoring an enacted bill they called the “Stop Obamacare Act,” which requires legislative approval of any expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion attempt, called Insure Tennessee, was killed by the Legislature last year.
The KFC second-quarter disclosure lists donations of $1,000 to Durham’s PAC and another $1,000 to Durham’s own re-election campaign account, though not labeling them as refunds. (Update/Note: Kelsey says in an email that they were refunds.) His prior disclosure listed contributions from the two Durham accounts in similar amounts, both dated Feb. 7. Durham’s second-quarter PAC report lists a receipt of $1,000 from KFC as a refund.
East Tennessee legislators donating to KFC in one way or another — individually, through their PACs or through their own campaign accounts — include Republican Sens. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, Steve Southerland of Morristown, Doug Overbey of Maryville, Rusty Crowe of Johnson City, Mike Bell of Riceville, Paul Bailey of Sparta, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Bo Watson of Hixson and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville.
East Tennessee state House members similarly donating include Reps. Smith, Zachary, Micah Van Huss of Gray, Martin Daniel of Knoxville, Roger Kane of Knoxville, Andrew Farmer of Sevierville, John Holsclaw of Elizabethton, Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, Timothy Hill of Blountville, Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, Cameron Sexton of Crossville and Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City.
Lobbyists donating to KFC include Dale Allen, Tom Lee, Debra Maggart, Chuck Welch, Michael Bivens, Brian Bivens and Joe May, a former Republican legislator from Knoxville.
East Tennessee legislators receiving donations from Kelsey in the second quarters include Smith, Holsclaw, Daniel and fellow Republican Reps. Jerry Sexton and Jeremy Faison of Cosby.
Money on the move
While the KFC situation is somewhat unusual, other legislator interchange donations follow a more typical pattern, as illustrated by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ramsey in their political accounts. Most representatives send sent money at one time or another to Harwell’s personal re-election account and/or to her PAC, while most senators have sent money to Ramsey’s re-election account or to his PAC.
In the latest disclosures, Harwell in return has sent funds to favored Republican incumbents she apparently feels most endangered and in need of support — most recently including Daniel and Faison, along with Reps. Curtis Halford of Dyer, Jay Reedy of Erin and Tim Wirgau of Buchannan.
Ramsey is similarly sending money to embattled senators. His political action committee, RAAMPAC, reported sending money in last week’s disclosures to Gardenhire, Overbey and Sens. Steve Dickerson of Nshville, Mark Green of Clarksville, and Delores Gresham of Somerville — all facing primary challengers. RAAMPAC also sent money to senators who have no opponents who, at the same time, are sending money to the challenged incumbents.
For example, Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who has no opposition to his re-election this year, got RAAMPAC funding and has made donations from his re-election account to senators who do — including Dickerson, Overbey, Gardenhire, Green, Tracy. Yager has also given thousands of dollars to House members facing opponents either in primary or general elections, mostly in districts near his own. They include Faison and Reps. Dennis Powers of Jacksboro, Cameron Sexton of Crossville, John Ragan of Oak Ridge, Kent Calfee of Harriman, and Kelly Keisling of Byrdstown.
The Tennessee Journal reports that RAAMPAC, after the July 1 disclosure deadline, has put more than $70,000 into sponsoring an independent expenditure cable TV ad in Nashville supporting re-election of Dickerson.