Independent expenditures mostly flopped in legislative races

The outcome of last week’s primary elections in state legislative races were a mixed bag for groups with an education reform agenda in next year’s session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the results perhaps indicating an overall negative for those advocating charter schools and vouchers.

The striking theme in legislative races was that challenged incumbents won in both Democratic and Republican primaries in 44 of 46 contests. The two notable exceptions: The defeats of Rep. Jeremey Durham, R-Franklin, who had suspended his campaign after an attorney general’s report declaring he had sexually harassed 22 women, and Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who was jailed a few days before the primary for allegedly stealing opponent Mark Lovell’s yard signs.

Both of the losers had been targets for six-figure independent expenditure attacks by PACs oriented to education issues. In Durham’s case, the attack ads were led by Stand For Children, a group focused largely on charter schools, and most of the ads came before the public disclosure of what the attorney general called “sexual interactions” with women and Durham’s campaign suspension. Thus, they may have had little to do with Durham’s landslide loss to challenger Sam Whitson.

Todd, on the other hand, had been targeted with more than $100,000 in attack advertising by Tennessee Federation for Children, which focuses almost exclusively in pushing school vouchers. The returns show Lovell won in early voting, which had ended before Todd’s arrest, which could indicate the early July AFC ads had an impact on the outcome.

Todd was supported by direct donations from PACs controlled by the Tennessee Education Association, which adamantly opposes vouchers, and Gov. Bill Haslam, who has striven to promote them on a limited basis. The governor’s PAC supported 43 incumbent Republicans, most having no opposition, and otherwise batted 100 percent in supporting winners — including those who did.

Most incumbent legislators overwhelmed challengers by lopsided margins. The two winning incumbents with the closest races statewide were Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville. AFC supported Gresham with a modest $7,500 but opposed Hicks — who lined up against vouchers last session — with $80,000 in attack ads. Stand for Children, on the other hand, gave Hicks $1,000 in direct donations, while Haslam’s PAC kicked in $5,000 and gave Gresham $2,000.

Gresham’s opponent, Bob Shutt, was backed by the TEA — including indirectly funding about $50,000 in attack ads against Gresham by a locally based independent expenditure group. A Democratic political operative who was involved says that may have made the race a lot closer than it would have been otherwise.

Both voucher-focused AFC and Stand for Children, focused more on charter schools, backed some incumbents who won and opposed some who lost. But Stand for Children had a more remarkable string of losses after spending more than $700,000 in independent expenditures during the first 25 days of July. Excepting Durham, the group lost all its efforts against incumbents and invested heavily in backing open-seat legislative candidates who lost with a single West Tennessee exception. In Nashville, the group spent more than $200,000 opposing school board incumbents perceived as opposing charter schools and all nonetheless won.

Dick Williams, who as president of Common Cause in Tennessee has for years advocated state campaign finance reforms, said he is hopeful that the overall primary results indicate voters are becoming less influenced by groups that engage in state politics with money mostly coming from outside the state and with donors of that money undisclosed.

“Regardless of who wins or loses a given race, people are maybe starting to see through that … at least enough to try to understand the facts instead of accepting what an outside money ad says,” he said.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told the Times-Free Press that there has been “a lot of noise being made” about voter disenchantment with incumbents.

“I think maybe we’ve seen that the blind, anti-incumbent fever has peaked and maybe people are actually making reasonable decisions,” said McCormick, who was unopposed in his own bid for re-election.