published Monday, February 6th, 2012

Tennessee Republicans have huge cash advantage over Democrats

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    House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville speaks to reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE — After easily outpacing legislative Democrats and the state Democratic Party in fundraising throughout 2011, Tennessee Republicans are sitting atop a huge, 3-to-1 cash advantage over their rivals, filings show.

Fueled by the fundraising power of a GOP-led General Assembly and a Republican governor for the first time since 1869, the GOP has created a financial juggernaut to boost already impressive legislative majorities.

Financial disclosures filed last week with the state show the GOP collectively sitting on a $3.2 million campaign war chest as of Jan. 15. That includes the House and Senate Republican caucuses, leaders’ personal campaign accounts, top leadership PACs and the state Republican Party.

That compares to about $770,000 cash in hand for Democrats.

“Wow,” said Tennessee Common Caucus Chairman Dick Williams. “That’s a pretty stark difference. I wouldn’t have expected it to be quite that much.”

But he said contributions generally flow to those in power, Republican or Democrat.

The figures were culled from filings at the state’s Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and Federal Election Commission filings by the state Republican and Democratic parties.

Totals don’t include disclosures that rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats also filed last week with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

But House Republicans’ own analysis counts those dollars. It shows rank-and-file Republicans in the 64-member majority reported cash balances of $3 million, compared to just less than $1 million for the 34 Democrats.

The House GOP’s 22-member freshman class reported raising some $614,550, compared to $429,500 raised by rank-and-file Democrats, the analysis found.

“I think it’s a very humbling experience and an honor that the people of Tennessee have that much confidence in us,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, noted Republicans appear to have been helped by a GOP-sponsored law that allows direct corporate contributions.

“If we don’t do something about all this money in politics, in a couple of years, we’ll have the best legislature money can buy,” he said.

He said Democrats “didn’t really hit up a lot of our big, heavy donors this time on the front end. ... If you look, you don’t see a lot of union money in there. We’ve not asked them [yet]. We want them to keep their powder dry and help us at election time.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the GOP’s success “has more do with the fact that we’re in the majority more than anything else.”

He noted that former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, at the height of his power, “used to raise more money than the entire Republican Caucus in some cycles.”

Donors “don’t get anything special out of it,” McCormick said.

Some may expect access, McCormick added, but he noted that if he has two telephone calls at once and one is from Chattanooga and another from a large donor, he takes the local call.

Because a number of political action committees filed their disclosures on paper instead of electronically, full figures on giving were unavailable last week.

Also, because the new law allowing corporate contributions simply requires them to register and file as PACs, it is difficult to ascertain how many companies are making direct corporate contributions to lawmakers.

However, some donors stand out. For example, Stowers Machinery Corp. in East Tennessee, which sells and leases road and construction equipment, is listed as contributing $10,000 to Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s leadership PAC, RAAMPAC.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris USA Inc. gave $5,000 to the Tennessee Legislative Campaign Committee, the Tennessee Republican Party’s campaign account.

Still, most companies donated through PACs or top executives.

UPM Pharmaceuticals President James Gregory, a traditional conservative donor from East Tennessee, personally gave $20,000 to the Republican Party’s Tennessee Legislative Campaign Committee.

AT&T’s PAC gave McCormick’s Core Leadership PAC $7,000. Philip Morris USA Inc. was listed as giving $2,500.

The Federal Express PAC gave $25,000 to legislative campaign committee, $20,000 to the Senate Republican Caucus and $10,000 to the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds gave Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell’s leadership PAC $10,000.

Olan Mills of Chattanooga, who recently sold his family’s national family portrait company, gave $25,000 to the Tennessee Democratic Party.

RAKING IN THE CASH

Here are the cash balances for the state parties as well as House and Senate caucuses, personal PACs and leadership PACs.

• Tennessee Republican Party: $316,000, after transferring nearly $158,000 to its federal account, which held $238,019.

• The Tennessee Republican Caucus, which raises funds for House and Senate Republicans: $457,492 on hand.

• The House Republican Caucus: $127,423.

• House Republican leaders and leadership PACs: about $922,000. Most was from Speaker Harwell, who reported $291,850 in her personal campaign account and $350,000 in her Harwell PAC.

• Senate Republican Caucus: $101,664.

• Leadership PACs: $406,330. Of that Ramsey’s PAC had $246,520. Personal PACs belonging to Ramsey, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and two other leaders had $682,000.

• The Tennessee Democratic Party: $30,488 in its state account and $26,295 in its federal account.

• The House and Senate Democratic Caucus: $72,600. The House Democratic Caucus had $63,205. Turner, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Speaker Emeritus Naifeh reported $231,190 from their personal or leadership PACs.

• Senate Democratic Caucus: $58,178. Senate Democratic leaders reported $350,000 in personal or leadership PACs and Minority Leader Jim Kyle’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign account. That includes Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who reported $126,069 in cash.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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