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TN nears record for political donations

10:13 AM, Aug 27, 2012   |    comments
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By Paul C. Barton | Tennessean Washington Bureau

August 27, 2012

WASHINGTON - Warning for Tennesseans who have given to political candidates and causes: Pleas for your money could ramp up between now and Nov. 6.

The last two months before an election are the "most intense part of the campaign for sure," said Bob Biersack, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that specializes in tracking political dollars.

Already, $29.15 million has flowed from individuals in Tennessee to 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns nationwide, as well as to political parties, political action committees and outside groups such as "Super PACs," according to the center's breakdown of Federal Election Commission records.

If the state's politically active continue to open their checkbooks over the stretch run, they could top the $36.78 million in individual contributions Tennessee pumped into the federal-level campaigns of 2008, the most for the state this century.

The Center for Responsive Politics recently estimated that 2012 congressional and presidential races will cost at least $5.8 billion, setting another new record.

"Although a lot of money still remains to be raised and spent, the data already shows that we're on track to break the extraordinary, record-setting sums spent in 2008," Sheila Krumholz, director of the center, said in a statement.

Before that, Tennesseans contributed $28.85 million in 2004 and $22.04 million in 2000, both presidential election years as well. The highest amount for any midterm election this century was $35.01 million in 2006.

Nashville gives the most

Nashville continues to dominate political giving in the state, with individuals there giving $11.97 million. The Chattanooga area is a distant second at $3.9 million.

The most generous ZIP codes have been 37205 ($2.48 million) and 37215 ($2.12 million), both in Nashville, followed by 37027 ($1.47 million) in Brentwood.

This year is the first presidential election since 2010 federal court rulings drastically changed the campaign finance landscape. Their decisions opened the way for groups such as Super PACs and certain types of nonprofits to solicit unlimited amounts from individuals and corporations for use in influencing elections without giving to candidates directly.

Because contributions to the nonprofits don't have to be disclosed, there is no way of knowing how much Tennesseans may be giving to them.

Although outside groups were involved before, the 2010 rulings "opened the door wider," said Jack Pitney, an elections expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Also driving fundraising this year, he said, are perceptions that the policy stakes are particularly large and the outcome, especially in terms of which party will control the White House and the Senate, is genuinely uncertain.

"You add high stakes with uncertainty and you've got a formula for high interest," Pitney said.

Not surprisingly for a red state, Tennesseans give far more to Republican candidates and party organizations than Democratic ones. In fact, of the money that has gone directly to candidates, 79 percent, or $21.74 million, has gone to Republicans.

Only Mississippi residents among the 50 states have given a higher percentage of its money to GOP candidates.

"Conservatives in general are highly motivated to end the Obama presidency," said Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

Moreover, Jillson said, both sides are tapping every known method they can think of to reach potential donors, including new online techniques.

The FEC itself recently opened a new frontier in fundraising by giving campaigns permission to receive small-dollar donations through cellphone text messages, an idea championed by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville. It's designed as a way of enticing more people at the grass-roots level to become involved in politics.

Stretch run nears

Still another factor driving fundraising to new levels is that for the first time neither major party presidential candidate is taking public money, meaning there are no limits on what they can spend. Since the mid-1970s, it had been common for candidates to accept money from a special fund created by a checkoff on federal income tax returns.

While candidates and parties like to boast about grass-roots support, solicitation of the wealthy continues to loom large, especially in an era of Super PACs, groups that can put unlimited donations to use in buying political advertising supporting particular candidates.

"Super PACs now provide rich individuals with a convenient vehicle for playing a big role in politics," Pitney said.

In Tennessee, two of the biggest donors are Andrew Miller Jr. and Andrew Miller Sr. of the Nashville firm Healthmark Ventures. Between them, they have given $234,000 to candidates, parties and Super PACs.

The largest single donation made by any Tennessean for 2012 races is $95,000 that Andrew Miller Jr. gave in July to Citizens 4 Ethics in Government, a Super PAC formed in June to try to defeat Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin. Neither Miller responded to requests for comment.

But Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics said the stretch run of the campaign is when a lot of smaller donors finally may join in the giving.

"It's still the period when most voters are beginning to think, 'OK, there's an election coming up. What do I think?'" he said.

Contact Paul C. Barton at pbarton@gannett.com

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