Independent groups pump cash into primaries

Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Conservative "Super PACs" and other groups swinging buckets of last-minute cash have jumped into Thursday's Republican primaries and at least one Democratic contest, records show.

Pre-primary filings show five political action committees spent about $367,000 in campaign contributions and independent expenditures for contests stretching from Kingsport to Memphis, state Election Registry filings show.

The expenditures cover July 1-26. The groups involved are the National Rifle Association, Students First, the Tennessee Federation for Children, Truth Matters and Tennesseans 4 Ethics in Government.

In Memphis' House District 90, Students First and the Tennessee Federation for Children have joined hands in a state House primary on behalf of a Democrat who backs education vouchers.

Tennessee Student First's PAC put up $104,018 to fund neighborhood canvassers and direct mail to help Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis. DeBerry, a black social conservative, faces Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, a white liberal, records show.

The Tennessee Federation for Children spent nearly $36,000 on direct mail and advertising to help DeBerry. It also put $100,489 into contributions and independent expenditures for various Republican candidates.

DeBerry backs vouchers while Richardson does not.

The national Students First group was created by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who backs public education reforms including a limited form of education vouchers.

The Tennessee group received all its funding from the national organization. It spent $150,182 to help House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who faces Republican Dale Carr. That included an independent expenditure of $46,164 for advertising.

The Tennessee Federation for Children's in-state backers include Nashville auto dealer Lee Beaman and Dorothy Scarlett, wife of retired Tractor Supply Co. Chairman Joe Scarlett. They respectively gave $10,000 and $15,000 in the second quarter.

But the group in July received a flood of new contributions, including $65,000 from the American Federation of Children, a Washington, D.C., group that also backs vouchers, according to Registry filings.

PACs can give no more than $7,100 in legislative contests but can make unlimited independent expenditures.

The federation also was active closer to home, in the open state Senate District 16, which includes Marion, Sequatchie and Grundy counties. It gave $2,500 to Republican Eric Chance, a Coffee County commissioner, in the four-person Republican primary.

Truth Matters gave $5,000 to Chance. That group is funded entirely with $71,000 from Nashville millionaire investor Andrew Miller, who is described by the Center for Responsive Politics as an anti-Islamic activist.

Another group, Tennesseans 4 Ethics, also got its entire funding of $50,250 from Miller.

The group spent $30,263 on radio ads attacking House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville; Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville; House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin; and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, in their GOP primaries.

Miller has made national news by giving $260,000 to two federal PACs that are attacking U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. She's being challenged in the 6th Congressional District primary by Lou Ann Zelenik, the former executive director of the Tennessee Freedom Project, which Miller heads.

The National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund spent $12,153 on mailers and phone banking this period to defeat Maggart in her GOP primary with Courtney Rogers, filings show. The NRA spent $75,000 on the cause in the second quarter.

Truth Matters spent $5,800 on behalf of Rogers. But the Tennessee Federation for Children reported spending $11,655 on direct mail supporting Maggart.

The NRA also spent $11,322 to help Rep. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier, and Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who are both fighting primary challengers.