Voting by Checkbook

We analyze who's spending how much on which national candidates. First up: the Haslams.

The 2008 federal elections have gotten obscenely pricey. By the last official tally, the three remaining major-party presidential candidates have raised nearly $430 million in campaign money since this whole thing got going. And now that there are just a handful of presidential primaries left, a whole lot of overeager would-be politicos, especially those with some disposable income, are deciding that now's the time for them to vote with their wallets. After all, you won't be pulling that lever again until the August 7 congressional primaries, and, for Tennesseans at least, the presidential race is over until November.

And while most campaign contributors find they can recapture the heady, fuzzy feeling of constituency with pocket money—five or 10 bucks—others are shelling out thousands at a time, all in a giddy showing of democratic enthusiasm. And then maybe some people are trying to buy themselves a little sway.

Whatever the motive, as soon as a contribution gets above $200, it has to be reported to the Federal Election Commission, and then it goes on the Web where some reporter can take it and put it in a paper, as a feature, once a month. Sorry if it's you. If it's not, then Metro Pulse welcomes suggestions as to which notable Knoxvillians' purses—and agendas—you'd like to sneak a peek into.

For now we figured we'd start with the ones that were pretty easy to see anyway.

Note: Metro Pulse used the online databases provided by the Federal Election Commission and Citizens for Responsive Politics to gather campaign funding data.

The Haslam Clan

Haslam-owned gas giant Pilot Corp. has thus far been the number-three overall campaign contributor in Tennessee over the 2008 campaign cycle, and the highest in Knoxville. From the beginning of 2007 through the first quarter of this year, Pilot's donated $183,066 (nearly $30,000 of which has gone to Maryville-born Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime friend of the family).

But collectively, the family itself has managed to beat out that number—nearly double it, actually. According to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, the family has, altogether, contributed more than $335,000 since the beginning of 2007. There are a lot of overlaps in the Haslams' contributions, of course. Nearly all contributed to Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, as well as Kentucky's Sen. Mitch McConnell, a hardline War on Terror Republican first elected in 1984.

While we're on McConnell, here's something that rates pretty high on the relevant-to-this-subject-o-meter: He's voiced a loud distaste for campaign finance reforms and contribution caps, arguing that they violate the First Amendment. He was the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court suit to overturn the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance-reform act that limited so-called "soft money" campaign contributions from 527 lobbying groups. As of his last disclosure at the end of 2007, McConnell had raised $10.7 million for his 2008 re-election campaign.

James "Big Jim" Haslam II

It's still nearly seven months before the general elections in November, but Pilot founder Big Jim Haslam has already spent an executive's salary on campaign contributions. He can probably afford it, though.

Haslam's written out more than 20 big (to us) checks since the beginning of last year, but since we don't want to bore you to death, we're just going to list some of the more notable ones.

Total Contributions: $76,900

Presidential Race Contributions:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—$2,100 on Jan. 8, 2007

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson—$2,300 on June 12, 2007

Republican National Committee—$28,500

Tennessee Republican Party—$10,000

Most predictable contributions:

Sen. Lamar Alexander—$1,200

Tenn PAC (Alexander is the honorary chair)—$5,000

Sen. Bob Corker (up for reelection in 2012)—$2,300

Most eyebrow-raising contribution:

Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas—$2,500

At $349,780, Cornyn has received more campaign contributions from Big Oil than any other congressional candidate in the current election cycle.

Elected in 2002, Cornyn is a longtime Bush ally with a pro-military, pro-Iraq voting record. Despite recently getting on board with a bipartisan clean-energy tax incentives bill that passed the Senate last week, he is not well-liked by environmental groups, as he's a vocal opponent of drilling bans in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cornyn is perhaps most famous for being called a "chicken-shit" by John McCain on the Senate floor last year, and then later endorsing him for president.

Farthest away:

Sen. Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming—$5,000

It seemed a little strange at first that Enzi should be getting this much support from Haslam. Unlike most of the other candidates Haslam's lent his financial support to, Enzi is neither from the Southeast nor a darling of the oil companies. So it seemed even weirder when we saw that Pilot Corp. is his number-one contributor, at $12,500 so far. Then we looked a bit down the list and noticed that Tenn PAC, with $10,000, is tied for number six, and it made a little more sense. Enzi has gotten quite a nod from Haslam buddy Lamar Alexander, who sits with him on the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families. Also, Haslam probably likes Enzi's old-fashioned, independent conservative streak. He's repeatedly broken party ranks and refused to vote in favor of Iraq War funding bills, not because he's against the war, but because he thought the bills had too many domestic earmarks. Plus, one of the last pieces of legislation he sponsored was a resolution to declare July 28 the "National Day of the Cowboy."

Contribution that might end up in a Democrat's hands:

Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America PAC—$2,000

Not just any Democrat, either, but Rep. John Conyers, of Michigan. Conyers, who last year received $2,000 from the SIGMA PAC, is kind of the Democrat. He writes for the Huffington Post and Daily Kos political blogs, he's all but accused President Bush of rigging the 2004 election in Ohio, and he was whispering about starting impeachment proceedings against Bush after he became the chair of the House Judiciary Committee in 2007. And he may very well be doing all that, at least just a little bit, on Big Jim's dime.

Knoxville Mayor William E. Haslam

Bill Haslam's not a private citizen anymore. As a politician, he's under pretty close public scrutiny all the time. So he plays it a little closer to the chest than his father. He still manages to get around to his closer friends and political allies, though. Check in next time to find out how much he gives McCain.

Total Contributions: $21,200

Presidential Race Contributions:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—$2,100 on Jan. 8, 2007

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson—$2,300 on June 13, 2007; $4,600 on Aug. 21, 2007.

Congressional Contributions:

Sen. Lamar Alexander—$600

Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina—$2,000

Sen. Bob Corker (up for reelection in 2012)—$2,300

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky—$2,300

Political Action Committee Contributions:

Tenn PAC—$5,000

James Haslam III, President and CEO, Pilot Travel Centers

James III, the least obviously interesting of the three big Haslams, neither patriarch nor politician, did somehow manage to spread his money around even more than his father did. His contributions also stand out in that he's the only Haslam (ever?) to give money directly to a Democratic candidate: $1,000 to Rep. Joseph Heath Shuler of North Carolina. But then again, Shuler may have earned a lot of that goodwill back in his college days at the University of Tennessee, where, as a Vols quarterback, he was named SEC Player of the Year in 1993 and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race.

Total Contributions: $83,100

Presidential Race Contributions:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—$4,200 on Jan. 8, 2007; $200 on March 23, 2007

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson—$2,300 on June 12, 2007

National Republican Senatorial Committee—$57,000

Congressional Contributions:

Sen. Bob Corker—$2,300

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia—$2,000

Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas—$2,500

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky—$2,100

Glen L. McCullough Jr., Republican House candidate of Mississippi—$500

Rep. Joseph Heath Shuler, Democrat of North Carolina—$1,000

Political Action Committee Contributions:

The National Association of Truck Stop Operators PAC—$4,000

Rock City PAC (Chaired by Bob Corker)—$5,000