Tennessee's Gubernatorial Campaign Cash

What can you get for $3.8 million? Gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam aims to find out

The official tallies won't be available until July 15, but the celebrations began last week for the four candidates competing for the Republican nomination in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

Perhaps the biggest news came from Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, whose campaign boasts $3.8 million in funds raised since announcing his bid in January. That is $2.5 million more than the amount raised by his nearest competitor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has collected a reported $1.3 million—though a press release notes that Ramsey, a state senator, was not allowed to begin fund-raising in earnest until June 1, so that amounts to roughly $325,000 per week, compared to the $141,000 per week that Haslam averaged out over his full six-month campaign. Rep. Zach Wamp comes in third at $1.2 million; and in fourth, Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons raised $415,000.

In a report in the Knoxville News Sentinel shortly following the announcements, the other candidates downplayed the importance of the massive fund-raising disparities between themselves and Haslam. In the article, Gibbons seemed to be criticizing the mayor's family's wealth, pointedly saying that his campaign cannot match "the Haslams," rather than "the Haslam campaign" or "Bill Haslam," then going on to say that money is not the most important factor in winning a campaign.

Haslam spokesman Jeremy Harrell begs to differ. He says that the $3.8 million figure is representative of about 3,000 individual contributions, making the average Haslam contribution about $1,267. "At the end of the day, votes win elections. When people contribute to your campaign, those are supporters. Those are tangible votes," he says. "Running a statewide campaign is very expensive."

Certainly it has been in the past few elections. Even in the 2006 election, in which Gov. Phil Bredesen won every county in November, he still raised $5.7 million compared to Republican frontrunner Jim Bryson's $1.9 million. In 2002, the last gubernatorial election in which there was no incumbent running, the top spender won, albeit by a small margin. The two top candidates, Van Hilleary and Phil Bredesen, raised $17.7 million combined—$10.3 million and $7.4 million respectively, including $2.9 million Bredesen took out in personal loans. In the last election without an incumbent prior to that, in 1994, Bredesen, the best-funded, lost the campaign. Bredesen raised $9.65 million to winner Don Sundquist's $6.9 million. More telling for those two elections, however, may be the fund-raising leading up to the August primaries in both of those years.

In 1994, Sundquist—who won the nomination with 80 percent of the Republican vote—reported $3.4 million in pre-primary fund-raising, and Bredesen—who had more than 50 percent of the Democratic vote—reported $3 million. Bredesen's closest challenger, Democratic candidate Bill Morris, reported $1.5 million. Sundquist's only challenger that year, former state representative David Copeland, only managed to raise $289,000.

Likewise in 2002, Bredesen (who had raised $5 million leading up to the primary) easily beat out Democratic challengers Charles Smith and Randy Nichols, getting 79 percent of the vote. Smith, who raised $180,000, and Nichols, who raised $158,000, came in with 6 and 7 percent, respectively. Hilleary, with $3.5 million, more than tripled the $1 million that failed Republican challenger Jim Henry raised. Hilleary got 64 percent of the Republican vote that year.

Wamp campaign chairman Bob Davis says he, like his employer, believes that whoever wins the Republican primary this time around will win the general election. In both 1994 and 2002, the biggest fund-raiser easily won the both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

"No one is going to be able to outspend Bill Haslam in this campaign," admits Davis. "He can just sit down and write himself a check for whatever he wants. Though he probably won't want to do that, he can."

Despite essentially conceding the fund-raising battle, though, Davis says that 2010 is an entirely different election.

"Let me tell you the difference between those elections and this one. Bredesen, Sundquist, Van Hilleary, they were campaigning for years before these elections got underway," Davis says. "They had a huge lead, going across the state making appearances, getting their names out for quite a while. They didn't just pop up out of nowhere and announce."

On the other hand, Haslam, says Davis, is only well-known in Knoxville and is virtually unknown in the rest of Tennessee.

Poll numbers so far have supported Davis' assertion. In a September 2008 poll of 625 likely voters across the state conducted by the Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Group, Wamp led both Haslam and Ramsey in name recognition. And a December 2008 poll conducted by the Tarrance Group on behalf of the Wamp campaign shows Wamp the clear winner among Republicans in East Tennessee Congressional Districts 1, 2, and 3.

All of that polling was done before the campaigns kicked off, but no campaign has released any more current ones.

"We've been all over the state since this campaign began," says Harrell, who says he expects that Haslam's profile has increased as a result of a series of personal appearances since January. "At this point we're very happy where we are in the rest of the state."

Harrell says the money will come in handy for television advertising. If Haslam is in fact unknown in Middle Tennessee, which contains the state's largest and most important television market, Nashville, he may need it. "Since it's so expensive to buy an ad on TV, that's going to be the biggest cost in a campaign," Harrell says, adding that the Haslam campaign hasn't begun producing or purchasing any TV ads yet. Davis says that's the case for everyone.

"You're not going to see anybody spending a lot of money yet," Davis says. "It's mostly about bringing it in right now, waiting for Dec. 31 when we have to report again."