Special interest money a big part of local campaigns

Posted on Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm

By Ian Skotte, staff writer

Republicans in local races continue to outpace their Democratic counterparts in the fundraising in this year’s race, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance (TREF).

While both sides receive funding from special interest groups and political action committees, or PACs, these groups more often target Republicans for donations, statistics show.

In the races between State Rep. Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma) and Scott Price (D-Manchester) in the 47th District; State Rep. David Alexander (R-Winchester) and Doug Clark (D-Winchester) in the 39th District; and Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) and Jim Lewis (D-Kimball) in the 16th District State Senate race, special interest contributions account for more than half of the total donations given to the combined campaigns.

According to TREF, the three GOP candidates have raised $251,529.25, with $130,549.20 coming from special interest groups, while the three Democrats have raised $59,926.13 with $13,985 from special interest groups.

When broken down, the three Democrats receive 23 percent of their funding from special interest groups, while the three Republicans received 52 percent.

Individually, special interest monies pay for 81 percent of Matheny’s campaign contributions; 57 percent of Alexander’s; 50 percent of Price’s; 41 percent of Bowling’s; 18 percent of Lewis’; and eight percent of Clark’s.

Of all the candidates listed, Bowling receives most of the group’s special interest money, despite receiving 59 percent of her campaign contributions from individual donors.

Bowling received $63,584.20 in special interest money with a large chunk coming from the Senate Republican Caucus and the rest coming in the form of PAC money.

Her opponent Lewis has received $7,484.85 from special interest groups most notably in the form of union donations.

Though he’s raised only $47,375 this election cycle, Matheny has received $38,225 in PAC and special interest money. Raising campaign funds can seem like a full-time job for candidates.

“Raising money is a necessary part of the political process in order to get your name and message out to the voter,” Matheny said in an email. “It is by no means a full-time job, but it does require great effort at times, especially in election years and in the immediate months preceding an election.”

Having a huge lead in campaign funds doesn’t always lead to a win on Election Day, according to Melody Crowder-Meyer, an assistant professor at the University of the South’s political science department.

“Sometimes candidates can lose despite raising and spending huge amounts of money like Linda McMahon [in Delaware’s senatorial campaign during the] last election cycle,” she said.

However, Crowder-Meyer added an influx of cash could help in a number of ways. It can buy candidates ads – whether through yard signs, direct mailings, or television and radio outreach.

“And, it can fund other efforts to mobilize and get out the vote,” she said.

Tennessee continues to be a “right leaning” state, according to Crowder-Meyer, which helps Republican candidates in particular running for office.

Republicans also have deeper pockets, according to recent presidential campaign contributions that show Mitt Romney raising similar amounts to President Obama. The difference is a majority of the president’s contributions come from donations of $250 or less, while most of Mr. Romney’s money comes from larger donations of $2,500.

“The thing about campaign funds, however, is that they can indicate a variety of things,” said Crowder-Meyer. “Sometimes campaign funds are simply a symbol of other kinds of support.”

She added if one candidate raises immensely more than another candidate, that might signify that the candidate has more support from voters.

“Of course, a huge lead in campaign funds could also just indicate that a few particularly big donors maxed out their contribution limits to a candidate and the other candidate didn’t get that same level of support,” she said. “This may tell us less about who is likely to win that race.”

Despite contributions favoring Republicans, Matheny says he doesn’t believe Republicans raise any more money than Democrats in the long run.

“It often boils down to the effectiveness of the candidate and the party in power,” he said. “I can remember the Democrats having huge sums when I was first elected and they controlled both chambers and the governor’s office.”

His Democratic opponent Price says the issue isn’t how much money is being received, but where it’s coming from.

“I do understand that many groups along with individual voters are interested in supporting candidates for office,” said Price. ”However, I find Mr. Matheny’s incredibly disproportionate amount of special interest contributions compared to average voters’ contributions is of some concern.”

Price also brought up a pledge Rep. Matheny allegedly made when running in 2002.

“Matheny pledged to voters at the time that he would not take PAC or lobbyist money and was very critical of the 10-year incumbent that he was running to unseat for doing just that,” said Price. “Now to date, Mr. Matheny’s campaign has collected over $200,000 from special interest groups all over Tennessee and many in other states.”

A recent Supreme Court ruling has brought PAC and super PAC money into question. The now infamous Citizens United ruling stated campaign contributions are considered speech and there should be no limits on free speech. This allows unlimited donations to candidate-affiliated groups.

“PACs are also special because they are allowed to contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns and party organizations,” Crowder-Meyer said, which are funds that candidates can then use to implement their campaign strategies.

No matter where the money comes from, or what entity allowed it, the choice is clear—special interest groups favor Republicans over their Democratic counterparts in local state races.

According to the Federal Election Commission, individual donors giving more than $200 are listed as contributors on the Registry of Election Finance’s website.

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