Despite distinct Republican majorities ruling each chamber, groups favoring candidates from both sides of the aisle came out in droves last month to give their candidates or parties an extra jolt of cash in this week’s election.
As if hinting at the gravity of discussions lawmakers promise to have about expanding education reforms, gun laws and health care, the groups dishing some of the last-minute money to candidates have issues before the legislature next year.
“Political money is odd. People give it for different reasons. Some people, frankly and sadly, give it because they think it influences,” said Tom Ingram, a political consultant and longtime operative in Tennessee elections dating back to 1978.
The influx of cash came in the month of October, a time when candidates were itching for extra funds to refill their depleting campaign coffers, buy last-minute mailers, TV and radio ads and show financial power going into the home stretch.
The top contributors — outside the state’s two major political parties — largely represented education interests.
“More and more often, I think people give to the side that they ideologically support to bolster, reinforce, give them the tools they need to advance the ideology they share,” he said.
“You see potential strength for or against you, based on the ideology of the PAC,” said Ingram. “And they’re disconcerting in some ways, because you don’t know who the individuals behind them are.”
Top contributors coming to the rescue in the waning days of the campaign may hope lawmakers remember them kindly during the next two-year legislative session when their issue comes up for a vote.
One of the state’s highest rollers was the Tennessee Federation for Children, a branch of the pro-school-choice group, the American Federation for Children, based in Washington, D.C. The PAC handed out $145,000 worth of campaign contributions and mailers to support GOP candidates.
Also in the mix is Students First, a like-minded education reform group that gave more than $66,000 exclusively to Republicans in the last few weeks before the general election. Its founder, Michelle Rhee, is the controversial education reform advocate who made waves as chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., when she fired teachers whose students showed poor academic growth.
But more than ties, the influx of money strengthens the suggestion that there will be pressure on lawmakers to deliver on further education reforms this year, despite worry among school boards like Metro Nashville’s that the state is moving too quickly to expand charter school laws and usher in a school vouchers program.
There’s little doubt that the interest groups adding money to political discourse may want to get something out of it from lawmakers, said Ingram. But the question is how much that will ultimately influence legislators’ decisions.
“Two plus two equals four. You can say you don’t pay attention to it, but you do. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you pay inappropriate attention to it, but you have an awareness,” he said.
Laborers, too, came out en force in the final weeks. The Plumbers and Pipefitters Education Committee, combined with the Tennessee Pipe Trades Association, coughed up almost $140,000, largely for Democrats. The Tennessee Laborers PAC put down $37,000 last month, including $20,000 to the House Democratic Caucus.
Gun rights advocates threw in more than $33,000 to finish off what has been an intense election cycle.
Giving mainly to Republicans and a few key Democrats, the National Rifle Association has made no secret that it wants to allow gun owners to take their weapons with them on their commute and legally keep their firearms locked in their cars while on the job.
Top members of leadership scoffed at the idea last year and prevented legislation from coming up for a vote, although firearms advocates shot back by unloading more than $100,000 in a Sumner County Republican primary race to unseat Rep. Debra Maggart, a top caucus lieutenant.