Election 2020: The Fund Race

Money

Election 2020: The Fund Race

An analysis of local campaign donations shows advantages for Republicans and incumbents, but some competitive races.

by jesse fox mayshark • October 22, 2020

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Political campaign donations are both aspirational and strategic: People donate to candidates they hope will win, but also often to candidates they think will win.

Fundraising is close in two Republican-held legislative seats with no incumbent running.

That’s why in Knox County state and federal races, Republicans and incumbents were in general at a distinct advantage in fundraising as of the end of the third quarter. But an analysis of contributions through Sept. 30 suggests that donors think at least a few of the local legislative races are likely to be close.

In the absence of public polling in local races, financial disclosures serve as a barometer of excitement and engagement, as well as providing resources necessary to run a competitive campaign. 

On that metric, at least, two of the local legislative races stand out as closer than others. The state House 16th and 18th districts are both currently represented by Republican incumbents who chose not to seek re-election this year. Sensing an opening, or at least hoping for one, the county Democratic Party fielded well qualified candidates in both races who have been able to raise the money to go head to head with GOP contenders.

Other races, on the other hand, show money flowing mostly in the direction of conventional wisdom, with large campaign finance imbalances. Those imbalances generally favor Republicans, except in the two districts already held by Democrats.

In general, Republican candidates have received more money from political action committees (PACs) and other officeholders than Democrats have. Republicans tend to attract PAC donations from groups representing business and industry, while Democrats tend to receive money from organized labor and women’s political groups.

(For more detailed coverage of individual races, see our handy election guide. You can look up reports for state Legislature candidates on the state Campaign Finance website. Reports for federal offices are compiled several places, with one of the most informative being OpenSecrets.)

The Close Calls

In the 16th District, state Rep. Bill Dunn is retiring after 26 years in office. Former County Commissioner Michele Carringer won the August Republican primary to succeed him, and she faces Democrat Elizabeth Rowland in the general election.

Rowland is a first-time candidate, but her background working in international trade efforts across Tennessee allowed her to build up a network of contacts. That has shown up in her fundraising. As of Sept. 30, Rowland had actually outraised Carringer in what has been a strongly Republican seat for decades.

Rowland raised $24,831 in the third quarter and spent $7,352.92, leaving her with $25,461.01 on hand heading into October. That contrasted with $18,850.00 raised by Carringer, who spent $4,101.16 and had $19,308.96 on hand.

Most of Rowland’s donations came from individual donors, with $1,150 coming from local and statewide Democratic women’s organizations, and $1,000 from Democratic congressional candidate Renee Hoyos. Among the other familiar names on her donor list are former Knoxville Vice Mayor Duane Grieve, current City Councilwoman Amelia Parker and attorney Greg Isaacs.

Carringer received $8,850 — about 47 percent of her third-quarter total — from PACs and other campaigns. Donors included the PAC of Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, which gave Carringer $3,000; the Housing Industry Pac ($750); the anti-regulatory National Federation of Independent Business ($500); the Tennessee Realtors PAC ($500); and TN Advance Financial PAC ($500), which represents high-interest payday lenders.

Individual donors included Dunn, who contributed $1,000 to try to keep his seat in Republican hands, and Wes Stowers of Stowers Machinery, who contributed $1,600. Donations from Republican officeholders included $1,500 from Lamberth PAC, representing Majority Leader William Lamberth, and $1,000 from BECPAC, run by state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville.

In the 18th District, currently represented by Republican Martin Daniel, Knoxville businessman Eddie Mannis won a narrow victory in the August primary and faces Democratic candidate Virginia Couch, an attorney.

Mannis has an edge in fundraising after a strong third quarter, when he took in $61,847.84 in contributions and spent $16,659.19. Couch raised $44,058.15 and spent $18,470.66.

But, maybe reflecting the lack of a primary contest on the Democratic side, Couch actually had more cash on hand at the end of September, with $57,140.98 to Mannis’ $53,486.06.

Mannis received a total of $15,000 from PACs in the third quarter, including $3,000 from the PAC of Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. That reflects the party leadership’s eagerness to retain the seat, despite persistent allegations from some party members that Mannis is not sufficiently Republican.

Industry PACs contributing to Mannis include those of the wine and spirits wholesalers ($3,000); Great Public Schools PAC ($2,500), which represents charter schools; the housing industry ($1,500); and Tennessee Highway Contractors ($1,000). Individual donations included a combined $8,900 from various members and generations of the prominent Haslam family; $3,200 each from Jim Clayton and his wife, Michell; and $500 each from County Commission Chair Larsen Jay and his wife, Adrian.

Couch, unusually among local Democrats, received more in PAC contributions than her opponent, at $15,950 for the third quarter. Most are from Democratic Party PACs and labor groups, with the single largest donation of $8,100 coming from the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers.

Couch also received contributions from two current Nashville Democratic state representatives, John Ray Clemmons and Darren Jernigan, and $1,000 from Hoyos’ congressional campaign. Mary Mancini, the chair of the state Democratic Party, also kicked in $350, showing the attention the party is paying to a seat it hopes to flip.

Also on Couch’s donor list is former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who gave $250, That wouldn’t normally be surprising — Rogero is a Democrat who has made a point of encouraging other women to run for office. But Mannis worked for her as her chief operating officer early in her mayoral tenure and also served as treasurer for both of her mayoral campaigns.

Incumbent Advantage

In the other local races, incumbents have a clear fundraising edge. The largest margin is in the contest for the state Senate’s 6th District, currently represented by Republican Sen. Becky Duncan Massey. She is facing Democratic challenger Jane George.

Massey, who is chair of the Senate’s powerful Transportation Committee, started the year with a massive war chest that has continued to grow. In the third quarter, she raised $35,660 — 83 percent of it from PACs — and spent $22,081.61. That left her with a whopping $406,499.94 on hand. In contrast, George, a first-time candidate, raised $21,688, spent $19,054 and had $4,163 in the bank at the end of September. So Massey had nearly a 100-to-1 advantage in cash on hand.

Massey’s contributors include the wine and spirits wholesalers ($5,000), beer distributors ($1,500), long-term care center operators ($1,500) and used car dealers ($1,000). She is also among a small number of Republicans to enjoy the support of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents teachers and most often supports Democrats. The group’s PAC donated $2,000 to Massey, who stood firm against Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account school voucher program.

In the state House 14th District, which covers a section of West Knox County including Farragut, it doesn’t seem as if major donors from either party expect much of a contest between Republican incumbent Rep. Jason Zachary and Democrat Justin Davis. Zachary only bothered to raise $9,350 — 77 percent of it from PACs — and spent $20,130.22, leaving him with $70,401.31 on hand.

Davis reported raising $5,071.56 and spending $1,118.80, with $6,747.76 on hand. His most notable contribution was $1,000 from Hoyos.

On the other hand, in the 13th District, it’s Democratic incumbent Rep. Gloria Johnson with the sizable edge over Republican challenger Elaine Davis. Johnson raised $69,004.63 and spent $42,606.27, leaving her with $100,783.64 on hand. Davis reported raising $19,695.00 and spending $13,109.73, with $19,593.36 remaining at the end of the quarter.

The gap suggests that both local and statewide Republicans do not see the seat as a likely flip in the current political environment, even though it was held by a Republican for four of the past eight years. (The seat is a likely target for GOP redistricting efforts after this year’s Census.)

Most of Johnson’s contributions are from individual donors, with a combined $4,000 coming from PACs for Communication Workers of America and the Brushy Mountain Prison Employees Union.

On the other hand, $12,000 of Davis’ donations — about 61 percent of the total — come from PACs and other legislative campaign funds, including those of state Sen. Richard Briggs ($250) and Reps. Bill Dunn ($500) and Dave Wright ($1,000). She received $500 each from the Housing Industry PAC and the National Federal of Independent Business, and another $500 from the pro-school-voucher group Tennessee Federation for Children.

And in the 15th District, where Democrat and former County Commissioner Sam McKenzie is facing independent candidate Troy Jones, McKenzie raised $4,075, spent $3,737.59 and had $6,787.12 on hand. His donors included Hoyos’ congressional campaign ($1,000) and Republican former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who contributed $200. (There is no Repuplican on the ballot in the heavily Democratic urban district.)

Jones is a personal injury attorney, and his entire reported fundraising haul — $4,400 — comes from Lawyers Involved for Tennessee, the PAC of the state’s trial lawyers.

Acts of Congress

Hoyos’ efforts to turn Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District blue are up against long historical odds — it has been represented by Republicans since before the Civil War — but she has been an energetic and effective fundraiser.

According to reports compiled at Open Secrets, Hoyos has raised $757,983 in the race, to $1.19 million for Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Burchett. As of their most recent reports, Burchett had $643,860 on hand to $163,938 for Hoyos.

Both candidates have already raised more than they did in their first face-off in 2018, with Hoyos more than doubling her total from that year, almost entirely in individual contributions. 

Burchett has received $231,635 from PACs in the past two years, about 19 percent of the total amount he’s raised. His top donor is the Building Trades Union PAC of the AFL-CIO, which has traditionally heavily supported Democrats but has been strategically splitting its donations in the Trump era. (The choice in this race may have been made easier for the labor group, because Hoyos has refused to accept any PAC money.)

Other top Burchett supporters include agricultural, automotive and insurance industry PACs.