Sunday column: Independent spenders educating voters?

Speculating on trends on money in Tennessee politics, halfway through the 2016 election season:

In the 2014 legislative elections, the cheapest seat in the House was won by state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, who reported spending a total of $235.38 in winning re-election. In a solidly Democratic district, he had no primary opponent that year, but he did have a token Republican foe who reported spending exactly $200.

The most expensive 2014 House seat, going by total campaign expenditures, went to Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, who spent $270,141 to be re-elected. In a solidly Republican district, he had a primary opponent who was outspent substantially, but no November foe.

On the Senate side, the most expensive seat two years ago was won by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, at a cost of $455,028, with Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a close runner-up at $451,309. The cheap seat went to Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, at $46,362. She was running at the time in a seat vacated by her husband and is up again this year for a full four-year term. Briggs and Yarbro are not.

This year, based on 2016 election cycle spending through July 25, Hardaway, Sargent and Kyle had already surpassed their 2014 totals. Hardaway, who has a primary opponent this year and no general election foe, has burned through a whopping $3,816, probably the biggest percentage increase in the state. Sargent had spent about $20,000 more than last time around in defeating the same primary opponent; Kyle about $2,000 more and also defeated the same primary opponent.

Based on these samples, the apparent trend in direct spending by candidates for a job that pays a salary of about $20,000 per year — but has pretty good benefits — is following the same pattern as in recent prior elections: Steadily increasing, though not dramatically so overall on a cycle-to-cycle basis.

A major reason for no dramatic escalation is that most candidates, as a practical matter, only have to worry about the primary election — true in the case this yearof every legislator mentioned above, both the most expensive and least expensive.

Spending by standard political action committees — those representing various special interests and political causes that make direct donations to campaigns — has had the same trend of steady increases, but nothing dramatic. Indeed, the 2014 traditional PAC spending was actually a whisker below the 2012 cycle spending at about $10.7 million statewide, though that may be seen as a minor aberration.

The striking upward trend is in independent expenditures, both reported and unreported. This spending, which under relevant laws cannot be coordinated with a candidate, was something of a novelty in Tennessee politics just a decade or so ago. Now it’s a big thing and, conceivably, on its way to becoming the biggest thing.

In 2014, total independent expenditures in legislative races — those reported — were about $1.6 million. This year, as of July 25, just three groups with education legislation agendas had reported spending of more than $1 million. As a rough guess, based on very incomplete skimming of other reports, that may be about half the total that will ultimately be disclosed in spending leading up to last week’s primaries.

Unreported expenditures, well, that’s anyone’s guess. Under relevant law, if an ad directly asks the reader or listener to vote for or against a candidate, its cost must be disclosed. If it just educates everyone to the proclaimed fact that candidate A is scum or candidate B is a shining example of virtue, that doesn’t get reported.

Just to speculate, unreported spending is exceeding the reported stuff. And the reported stuff, it should be noted, often comes from out-of-state parent PACs that don’t disclose their donors.

In the upcoming general elections, there aren’t many close races. But you can bet the disclosing and non-disclosing groups will weigh in heavily in that handful. As in some legislative primary races, they’ll likely spend more than the candidates themselves, who are mostly reliant on traditional PACs except for those wealthy enough to self-fund.

Self-funding seems to be on the upswing as well. Not since the election of Don Sundquist as governor in 1994 has a statewide office in Tennessee been filled in Tennessee without millions of dollars in self-financing. But until the last few years, it was rare in legislative races. Now it’s common.

So maybe that’s the overall big trend. To seek office, you should be rich or side on issues with those who are wealthy enough to sponsor independent expenditures.

At least until educated voters ignore them. And there were indications, at least on the independent expenditure front where special interest groups lost most races, that voters are indeed getting educated.

Note: This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel and appearing HERE.