If you’re not his relative, chances are you were surprised at the improbable victory of Goodlettsville-based father of five and contractor David Hall in the Republican primary for the 5th Congressional District. Hall’s campaign was quiet, if not invisible, to most media and observers but for the mysterious polls it released, conducted by a company no one had heard of, the last of which showed the candidate with a 6 percent lead a week before Election Day, its prescience confirmed on Aug. 5.
Exactly how Hall’s campaign managed to topple those of well-funded conservatives Jeff Hartline and CeCe Heil, both of whom had major national endorsements and war chests in the hundreds of thousands, is unclear.
We do know how he didn’t pull it off: fundraising.
Despite what it reported in filings with the Federal Election Commission, it appears the Hall campaign ran on almost no money — in fact, it only reported raising $200 from individuals — relying instead on the concerted efforts of the Hall family and a substantial personal loan from the candidate, a contractor and political greenhorn whose reported income last year was below the poverty line.
Therein lies the strangeness of it all. Hall created the distinct appearance of a well-funded, professional campaign, even though the operation was far from it. There remain questions about where his money came from, what kinds of businesses he owns, and just how much of his campaign’s reported cash was actually real money.
As he enters the biggest political race of his life, against popular Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Hall has remained quiet, issuing just two statements from Aug. 6 to 19 and making sparse public appearances, according to the public schedule on his website. Though his unorthodox strategy might not violate campaign finance law — a spokesman for the FEC would not comment on a specific case — it certainly distorts it.
The modern-day candidate will often tout fundraising figures as a measure of his campaign’s success and ability to connect with voters. The bigger the number, the greater the candidate’s currency.
Along with its final primary poll, the Hall campaign bragged that “voter exit polling shows that David’s $200,000 in voter contact has put his campaign a full 6 percent above his closest competitors.”
But that money wasn’t real.
On his financial reports, the “in-kind contributions” — goods or services traded to a campaign for a dollar value — came in two bunches: $188,864.25 for phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts, and $12,394.15 for a “campaign poll.” Initially the money was attributed to a company called “AHC Group,” or American Home Communications Group, a company Hall said he started after a failed 2008 run for state Senate during which he accumulated some basic polling “equipment.” (Incidentally, the company shares its initials with American Home Crafters, whose phone number matches the one used by Hall during his 2008 campaign but, according to state records, was dissolved in 1996.)
Instead of explaining to the FEC why the company that he said conducted his polling illegally contributed to his campaign, as the commission requested in a July 28 letter, Hall simply refiled the forms two weeks ago, inserting his own name in place of AHC and removing all mention of it from the campaign’s financial reporting.
Hall registered AHC Group with the Davidson County Clerk on April 1, just three days before filing his statement of candidacy with the FEC. It would be another three and a half months before anyone registered a web address for the company (there is a rudimentary website at www.theahcgroup.com). Hall makes no mention of the AHC Group on his personal financial disclosure, filed almost a month after he legally declared the business with the county clerk.
Asked to explain the omission, Hall first claimed that he hadn’t established AHC Group when he filed the disclosure. When he was reminded of the dates, however, Hall said he chose not to report his ownership of the company to the FEC because at the time it had yet to make any money. He also claimed the company has done work for other local candidates and is now bringing in revenue, although he declined to offer the names of any clients.
After an FEC letter asked him to explain the contributions, Hall simply replaced the company’s name with his own. That is perfectly legal, according to FEC spokesman Christian Hilland.
“They can give as much money as they want to to their own committees,” Hilland said, adding that in-kind contributions are often how candidates report along-the-way expenses.
But there remains the question of how Hall — working with his wife and five children, who were his campaign’s unpaid staff — came up with such a high dollar figure for those services.
Hall said AHC Group charges between 75 cents and a dollar per call to conduct polls by phone. His campaign released two polls during the four months of the primary campaign, the last of which was an exit poll of 753 voters. While there is no way to know how many calls Hall and his family made, it would have to be a staggering amount to — at AHC’s rates — rack up such a bill.
“That was a lump sum, it wasn’t just a poll,” he said. “It was a compilation of a considerable amount of different things we did for the campaign.” Hall refused to elaborate on those things, saying to do so would reveal “part of our ongoing campaign [strategy].”
“Just typical campaigning that most good campaigns do,” he added.
But polls aren’t that expensive. Brendan Finucane, an early candidate in the Republican primary for the 5th District who dropped out and supported Hartline, reported spending $5,500 on polling in March. And two Nashville political operatives who have recent campaign experience — one Democrat, one Republican — said polling and associated costs would not reach $200,000 for a campaign such as Hall’s.
“We were just stating what we did,” Hall said, insisting he based his figures on current market data.
Hilland said there is a FEC rule that requires campaigns to hold onto all receipts and invoices, including for in-kind contributions, for three years in case of a future audit.
“So it made him appear like he had more resources in his campaign than he did,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
But in this case, the traditional measure of a candidate’s corporeality didn’t much matter, Oppenheimer added.
“Despite this, he didn’t get any attention,” he said. “I think the thing that amazes people is that there were candidates on the Republican side who had some visibility who didn’t beat this fellow. It in part says when people don’t know who the candidates are, things like positions on the ballot, having a very common name that sounds familiar — affect voter decisions.”
Hall seems to have understood that. By his own accounting, his campaign had 50 volunteers holding signs at polling locations, both during early voting and on Aug. 5. At campaign events, he would park his bus — for which he paid $1,725, initially reported as in-kind contributions but paid for with real money after the FEC cried foul — next to Bill Haslam’s, for instance, offering the appearance of a major candidacy where there was little more than a man and his family working out of their house.
“He had more volunteers at the polls than any of the other Republicans in the 5th District primary,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper.
State Sen. Joe Haynes, who beat Hall in 2008, said “every poll was covered” with a Hall volunteer during that race, even though Hall ran a similarly spartan, family-style operation.
Bill Hobbs, a Republican operative who worked on the Hartline campaign, said he was impressed by the apparent size of the Hall campaign. “Typically you’ll see a lot of yard signs on a campaign because a lot of people are supporting them,” he said. “I think in this case, the campaign just bought a lot of yard signs to give that impression.”
Hall said he plans to try to raise money in the general election. It is not clear whether the state GOP will provide financial assistance to the Hall campaign; chairman Chris Devaney, who did not know Hall prior to his primary victory, said the party is still evaluating where to spend its money.
“However, we’re going to have a significant get-out-the-vote effort that will definitely include the 5th District,” he said.