Senate Campaign War Chests Could Swell

By Sam Stockard

NASHVILLE – Legislation enabling state lawmakers to raise campaign funds during even-year session recesses evolved into a markedly different bill this week – one allowing significant contribution increases for Senate candidates.


The Senate voted 27-2, with one abstaining, to essentially double the amount of money Senate candidates can receive from contributors, including individuals, political action committees and parties or caucuses. The increases come compliments of an amendment resetting their campaign receipts every two years instead of every four years, the length of a Senate term.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, was the only member to speak against the bill, telling senators their aggregate contribution limits from parties and PACs would jump to $724,000 every four years, double what they are allowed to receive now and not even including individual contributions.

“While I would love to raise more money, I don’t necessarily think the people of Tennessee want us to be able to raise three-quarters of a million dollars basically from party committees and PACs, so I would urge members to vote against this amendment,” Yarbro said.

Yarbro’s request went unheeded as he and Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, recorded the only votes in opposition to the bill. Sen. Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat, opposed the amendment but passed on voting on the bill.

During discussion on the amendment, the sponsor, Sen. Ken Yager, said the change is needed to provide Senate candidates “parity” with House members who can reset their contributions every two years.

Yager, who had $110,114 in his campaign account as of February, according to the Registry of Election Finance, said no dollar figures Yarbro mentioned are included in the legislation, and he declined to comment on them. He contended, however, that Senate districts are generally much larger than House districts, meaning Senate candidates need more leeway for fundraising.

Yarbro, who had $29,450 in his account in January, according to the Registry of Election Finance, responded that the rules already allow the Senate higher limits in some areas.

“I think we’re including some limits where we’re not achieving parity here. We’re achieving parity plus,” Yarbro said, asking how the Senate should “proceed” with a measure doing more than it seeks.

In answer, Yager said, “We need to proceed by passing the amendment and getting on with this bill.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Southerland, a Morristown Republican, told Yarbro, “I think it’s because each Senate seat has three times as much territory as the House members.”

Southerland had $88,185 in his account as of January, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

House members have roughly 64,000 people in their districts, compared to senators, who represent around 192,000 people.

Under the measure, individual contributions for any state or local public office would jump from $1,500 under the current index limit from individuals, allowing $3,000 in primary and general elections, for a total of $6,000 during a four-year cycle.

The limits can be adjusted based on the Consumer Price Index.

The contribution limit for Senate candidates from political action committees would jump to $47,200 over four years for primary and general campaigns, up from $23,600 under the current indexed limit of $11,800 per campaign.

Senate candidates would be able to receive $472,400 from multi-candidate PACs, up from $236,200 for primary and general elections under the current indexed limit of $118,100 per campaign. The House limit for PACs in 2017-18 is $7,800.

Senate candidates could net $252,000 total for primary and general elections from a political party or party caucus, according to a breakdown by the Senate Democratic Caucus. House candidates are limited to $30,700 every two years from parties and caucuses under new guidelines.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who reported a war chest of $120,842 early this year, supports the measure.

“The amendment merely allows the reset of the limits placed on contributions to Senate candidates every two years – just like House members. This creates parity between houses and allows Senate candidates the ability to obtain the resources needed to campaign in districts over three times the size of House districts, often over large and diverse geographic areas,” said McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

One of the Senate’s top fundraisers, Majority Leader Mark Norris, who is considering a gubernatorial run in 2018, reports $514,527 in his account. He can shift that money to a campaign to run for governor.

Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat who did not vote on the bill, reports having $4,061 in his account as of February. Harris reports $21,283 in his account in January. Kyle reports $6,784 in her account.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at