VOL. 132 | NO. 158 | Thursday, August 10, 2017
View From the Hill
A Million Reasons Not to Jump Into the Tennessee Governor’s Race
By Sam Stockard
Republican gubernatorial candidate Mae Beavers is banking on the idea wealthy candidates won’t be able to buy voters in 2018.
“Most of them seem to think they can write a hundred-dollar check to everybody in Tennessee and get their vote. I just don’t think it’s gonna play out that way this time,” says Beavers, an ultra-conservative state senator from Mount Juliet who says she hopes President Donald Trump will give her a bounce at the polls.
Beavers is denouncing Tennessee’s campaign finance laws just a few months after the state Senate voted to increase the amount donors could make to their campaigns. The House put the bill on hold.
“I think there’s something terrible wrong with our laws when an individual can only give $4,000 and yet an individual candidate can write a check for a million,” she says.
While moderate Republican candidates such as Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and Franklin businessman Bill Lee have been running for months and holding fundraisers, Beavers points out she raised nearly $57,000 in just three weeks after announcing her candidacy, without a staff or a fundraising event.
That amount barely tips the scales, though, compared to sums raised by the race’s wealthiest candidates. Boyd reported contributions of $4.34 million in June, including a $2.034 million personal gift, while Lee reported total receipts of $2.75 million, counting a $1.375 million self-endorsed loan.
They’re joined by U.S. Rep. Diane Black, reported to be one of the wealthiest members of Congress with a personal net worth around $150 million, and Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Belle Meade resident and the only Republican in the Davidson County House delegation.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimated Black’s net worth at $77.7 million in 2014. But after a certain point, does it really matter? She and her husband, David, aren’t exactly choosing between liver cheese and souse meat for supper.
Democrat Karl Dean, meanwhile, totaled $1.2 million in contributions in the first reporting period, spending only $7,000 himself for an early poll. The former Nashville mayor, who isn’t exactly sitting in the poor house, still had nearly $1 million in the bank in early July.
Dean is being joined in the Democratic primary race, somewhat belatedly, by veteran state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, who enters with a disadvantage in financing and name recognition. He has time to catch up.
Fitzhugh says he believes he has plenty of time to raise money, even though he intends to hold on to his House seat and position as Minority Caucus leader.
He doesn’t have a fundraising target either.
“You see some of those huge figures out there,” he says. “If that’s what it’s going to take to win, we’ve got an auction rather than an election.
“We’re just going to hit it hard and hit it long.”
The multimillion-dollar question
But do dark-horse candidates such as Fitzhugh and Beavers have the spending power to win a statewide race in an age where money rules?
Consider the fact Tennessee’s past two governors are beyond wealthy, with Bill Haslam’s net worth reported to be $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, and Phil Bredesen, a former health care executive, retired with so much money in the bank he didn’t take his governor’s salary.
With a sizable bank account, Haslam put $3.49 million into the race and raised a reported $16 million in 2010 to defeat Democratic candidate Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, who spent about $3.4 million.
Despite those dollars spent, Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer contends wealth doesn’t drive success in political campaigns.
“It helps. But being a good candidate helps more,” Geer says. “Gov. Haslam is a classic example. Yes, he is wealthy. But he was a good candidate and has proven to be a very good governor.
“Many of the candidates this cycle are well off. But I would venture to say that the winner will not be the wealthiest, but that candidate who best connected with the concerns of Tennesseans.”
Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Kent Syler agrees that being wealthy helps win elections due to the growing cost of political campaigns, mainly because of their reliance on expensive electronic media.
Personal wealth provides a built-in advantage, Syler says, because serious candidates either have to raise a lot of money or put a big chunk of their own into the race.
“It both takes pressure off fundraising and it helps your fundraising. Contributors don’t want to throw their money away and want to back someone they think is going to win,” Syler says. “Knowing that that candidate has personal resources makes them viable the moment they announce their candidacy.”
It’s difficult to argue with recent history in Tennessee gubernatorial races when “being a self-funder” created an advantage, Syler adds. Bredesen and Haslam could buoy their own campaigns, and Sen. Bill Frist and Sen. Bob Corker had strong track records as wealthy candidates.
Aside from the money, though, Bredesen and Haslam enjoyed high popularity. After two terms, Bredesen left office with good performance numbers, and Haslam appears to be ready to do the same thing, he notes, backing up Geer’s assertion.
“So, I don’t think the public really cares whether it’s personal money or money they’re raising from contributors,” Syler points out.
What the candidates say
With these astronomical numbers floating around, however, Tennesseans have to wonder if Joe six-pack, or even a seasoned politician such as Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, would be able to stay in the hunt for governor without millions backing them.
Lee, a farmer and owner of the Lee Co., says it’s a “little distressing” that the average Tennessean could hardly compete in a statewide campaign.
“It shouldn’t be that way. That said, I also think Tennesseans can see through the fancy ads and the political speak, and they’re smart enough to know who is telling them the truth,” he adds.
Lee recently wrapped up a 95-day RV tour of Tennessee, hitting every county in the state, and he contends hard work is going to matter more to voters than who has the most money.
But is driving an RV harder than running across the state?
Boyd, an avid runner, recently embarked on a cross-state trek on foot to supplement his campaign coffer. (Apparently, he has good genes or his knees and ankles didn’t suffer through years of basketball.)
“There is no doubt the cost of campaigning for any public office has become very expensive,” Boyd says. “So, no, while you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to run, you’ve got to be able to raise the dollars needed to get yourself known, or be able to personally contribute some, or both.
“That’s why we started so early and worked so hard to raise $2.3 million in just four months from generous donors in all 95 counties of the state.”
In Black’s last filing for Congress, she reported raising $210,043 and spending $241,999, with $33,280 on hand. Clearly, she’ll need more to run against better competition than former state Rep. Joe Carr, who appeared to be strong early but got waxed by Black on Election Day.
“Diane has a long history of attracting support from donors across Tennessee. She did not put any personal money into her tough primary in 2016 and she still raised enough to win in a landslide,” says campaign adviser Lance Frizzell. “She expects to be a donor to this campaign but she also has great confidence in the support she is already attracting from Tennessee donors.”
Frizzell points out that Black, another ultra-conservative from Gallatin, has always had well-funded campaigns and never lost an election.
(It must be noted her first congressional election campaign involved a protracted lawsuit involving an advertisement run by opponent Lou Ann Zelenik, who claimed Black, as a Tennessee legislator, benefited from a state contract given to her husband’s company, Aegis. It was a nasty affair.)
Harwell, who entered the race after the financial reporting deadline, could face a stiff challenge in raising enough money to keep up with the “three potential self-funders” in the Republican primary, Syler says.
Yet Harwell is showing some confidence, despite competing with Dean for Nashville dollars.
“The vote of Tennesseans must be earned and is not something that will be won by the highest bidder at an auction,” she says. “I’m proud to have significant financial support from every corner of our state from many who have told me how much they appreciate all our state has accomplished under my leadership as speaker. I will have the funds necessary to spread my positive, conservative message to voters.”
Dean, meanwhile, has the obvious jump on Fitzhugh financially. But at least the Democrats have two strong gubernatorial candidates for a change, a possibly sign they could be clawing their way back into relevance in Tennessee politics after losing majorities in the House and Senate as well as the governor’s seat.
The popular two-term Nashville mayor points out his $1.2 million raised in four months is the most tallied in one reporting period by a Democrat running statewide in more than 10 years.
“We’re proud of this accomplishment,” Dean says, “but even more importantly, the number of supporters we have is an even better indication of the strong grassroots support building behind our campaign.”
With more than 3,000 donors, Dean says his campaign has more supporters than any candidate in the race so far. He says it’s important to be competitive with fundraising, but he adds he doesn’t believe he has to raise the most or spend the most to win.
“What we’ve seen in recent election cycles is that a swell of grassroots support is the most important ingredient in a successful campaign,” he says, and his campaign believes it is building momentum with the election still a year away.
The primary is in August 2018 and the general election in November.
Beavers, who served as delegation chairman for Trump at the Republican National Convention, says she believes the conservative vote will turn out in her favor. She balked at Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, with a gas-tax increase, and has pushed legislation against same-sex marriage as well as the “bathroom bill” to stop transgender people from using the restroom of their choice.
“I think in a five-person race we have even a better chance, regardless of their millions,” adds Beavers, a critic of “moderate millionaires” such as Haslam and Boyd.
She touts the results of a recent straw poll by Rural Tennessee Speaks, which showed her winning 66 votes compared to 62 for Lee and 19 total for the rest of the Republican candidates.
Syler agrees with Beavers’ claim that a crowded primary will favor her, because when a smaller turnout comes into play, large sums aren’t as crucial as they are during a hotly-contested general election. Still, he points out, those are “flukes,” not the norm.
She’ll be hard-pressed, too, to overcome Black’s money and popularity in the right-wing ranks.
The MTSU political scientist also predicts the state will break the record $27 million spent on a gubernatorial race, because of the number of wealthy individuals competing.
“And if we get a competitive general election, we could break the $38 million record from the 2006 Senate race,” he says, referring to the battle between Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor, and Harold Ford Jr., the former Democratic congressman from Memphis.
In other words, the fight to sit at the helm of state government will depend heavily on money, whether it comes out of a candidate’s pocket or donors’ pockets. And, more than likely, the winner will be someone who has deep, deep pockets, enough to buy a steak dinner for every Tennessean, not bologna and cheese.
Sam Stockard covers the state Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.