PAC Men and Women
Local candidates from both parties benefit from political action committee donations, although with some differences in who’s writing the checks.
Gambling, whiskey and mobile homes — that may sound like a country tune, but it’s actually a selection of the industries represented by donors to state Rep. Michele Carringer, R-Knoxville, who is running this year for a second term.
Republicans tend to receive more donations from business-related PACs than Democrats, and Democrats receive more from unions and employee groups.
Although Carringer has no opposition for her 16th District seat, her reelection campaign has still received more than $50,000 in donations from political action committees (PACs), the organizations representing industries, workers and issue-based political groups that feed large amounts of money into state and federal elections.
Carringer is hardly alone among her Knox County colleagues of both parties in receiving some of the largesse. A Compass review of PAC contributions to local legislative candidates in this cycle showed some clear if unsurprising patterns. They suggest how entrenched certain interests are in Nashville, and the advantages they can give to incumbents and parties in power.
PACs participating in state races in Tennessee must register with the Registry of Election Finance. It is a simple and free process, but it requires names and contact information for a treasurer and committee officers.
Like the candidates they contribute to, PACs must make regular reports listing both contributors to and recipients of their funds. This distinguishes them from “dark money” advocacy groups, which don’t disclose donors or expenditures. They can participate in “educational” activities — like mailers attacking a candidate’s record — as long as they don’t coordinate with any candidate or urge a vote for or against anyone.
The big advantage of PACs for both donors and recipients is that they have higher limits on donations. There is no legal limit to how much any person or organization can donate to a given PAC, and PACs in turn can donate much more to candidates than individual contributors. (You can see the full list of current limits here.)
For example, if you want to support a local legislative candidate, as an individual you can donate up to $1,600 per election (primary and general races in the same year count as separate elections). But you can give as much as you want to a PAC, which in turn can contribute up to $12,700 per election to a state House candidate and $25,400 to a state Senate candidate.
PACs take several different forms. There are business and industry groups, like the Tennessee Bankers Association, Tennessee Realtors and the Tennessee Highway Contractors PAC. Some large companies have their own dedicated PACs: e.g., AT&T Tennessee, payday loan giant Advance Financial, Farmers Insurance, Publix and many others.
There are also union and employee PACs. In Tennessee, the largest include the Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children & Public Education, which represents the state’s teachers, and the Tennessee Employees Action Movement (TEAM), representing state government employees and retirees. Traditional labor unions like the SEIU and CWA also have PACs.
Some are more ideological in nature. Team Kid PAC, for example, lobbies for charter schools.
Stand for Tennessee PAC is a relatively new conservative advocacy arm that grew out of resistance to public health mandates during the pandemic and is focused on a host of social and cultural issues.
And then there are the PACs of political parties and officeholders themselves. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have PACs at local and state levels, which they use to support to support their own candidates. Many legislators — particularly those in senior positions — also operate their own “leadership PACs.” They use the money not to finance their own campaigns but to support other candidates and to pay for fundraising, subscriptions, professional services related to their office, and membership dues to organizations like local chambers of commerce.
For example, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally operates MCPAC, which has received $285,550 in donations in 2022 — much of it from other PACs — compared to $89,275 donated to McNally’s actual reelection campaign. In turn, he has distributed some of that money to other candidates, including many of the local Republicans seeking office.
In general, Republicans tend to receive more donations from business-related PACs than Democrats, and Democrats receive more from unions and employee groups.
To take two local incumbents as an example, Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson has received about $39,000 in PAC contributions during this election cycle as she seeks reelection in the newly drawn 90th District. Of that, $13,800 came from labor and employee groups. Most of the rest came from partisan Democratic Party PACs, including $15,000 from the Tennessee Tomorrow PAC, a fundraising arm of the House Democratic Caucus.
She received only a few contributions from industry groups, including $250 from the Tennessee Realtors PAC and $500 from the Tennessee Dental PAC.
In contrast, Carringer — who had neither a primary nor general election opponent — has received at least $57,650 from PACs in this cycle, much of it from industry groups and corporations. Among her donors are Amazon ($1,500), the Jack Daniel’s distillery ($4,000), the Tennessee Manufactured Housing Association ($1,000) and Publix supermarkets ($1,000). Her largest contribution is $10,000 from the Sports Betting Alliance, which lobbies for the state’s recently legalized online gambling industry.
The sports betting donation also illustrates the strategic approach many PACs take. Carringer is the only member of the Knox County delegation of either party to receive a contribution from the gambling group — not because she is a betting enthusiast but presumably because she serves on the House Subcommittee on Departments and Agencies, which oversees the state executive branch bureaucracy. That includes the Sports Wagering Advisory Council, established by the Legislature last year.
Five of the eight members of that subcommittee received donations from the Sports Betting Alliance in the most recent quarter, including one Democrat, Rep. Jesse Chism of Memphis.
Some other groups with specific interests are careful to spread around their donations in bipartisan fashion. TEAM, the state employees’ group, has donated to nearly every local incumbent running this year, including Democrats Johnson and Sam McKenzie.
At least some of the Republican dominance in PAC donations in Tennessee is more pragmatic than ideological — industry groups and corporations tend to give to whichever party is in power. So while Amazon’s donations in Tennessee tilt heavily to Republicans, that’s mostly because there are more of them. Several Democrats, including McKenzie, have also received contributions from the online retail giant.
But what it can all add up to is a huge campaign finance advantage for incumbents and for the dominant party. A good example is the state Senate race in District 7, where Republican Sen. Richard Briggs is seeking a third term over Democrat Bryan Langan.
Langan, a first-time candidate running in a district drawn to favor Republicans, has received no PAC contributions at all. He has raised a total of just $9,118 this year from all sources. Briggs, meanwhile, has raised $283,815, with about 72 percent of it — a total of $202,975 — coming from PACs.