Legislative caucuses spend heavily in special elections, defense of incumbents

07/09/2016 04:54 PM

Majority caucuses in both chambers of the General Assembly outpaced their counterparts in fundraising since last fall’s elections, according to reports recently filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Democrats in the House of Representatives, where they hold a 53-47 majority, exited this year’s primary elections with $309,049 banked in their caucus campaign account, raising $166,456 and spending $407,151 between Dec. 3 and June 16, according to the caucus’ 30-day post-primary report to KREF.

The Senate Republican caucus, with 27 members to the Democrats’ 11 in the upper chamber, had the second-highest cash balance in the reporting period, taking $192,377 into the fall election cycle. The GOP caucus raised $113,860 and spent $48,149, according to the caucus’ report to KREF.

Their fellow Republicans in the House reported $131,033 in their coffers after raising $155,619 and spending $81,586 in the period while Senate Democrats will start the general election season with just $11,191 in its campaign account, their reports to KREF show. Senate Democrats raised $17,500 and disbursed $26,274.

Those fundraising numbers could quickly change, however, particularly on the GOP side. The Republican Party of Kentucky reported $1.5 million cash on hand at the close of May compared to just $107,460 for the Kentucky Democratic Party.

In the House, much of the caucuses’ campaign cash went toward four special elections held on March 8.

Democrats pumped considerable sums into the four districts as they sought to retain their majority as they have since 1922. Democrats won three of the four races.

Rep. Chuck Tackett, who narrowly beat Republican Phillip Pratt in the 62nd House District by 253 votes, received $59,000 from the caucus while Rep. Lew Nicholls, who topped Republican Tony Quillen by nearly 15 points in the 98th House District, got $55,000 from the House Democratic caucus, according to the caucus’ KREF report.

The Democratic caucus gave Rep. Jeffery Taylor, who beat Republican Walker Thomas by more than 18 points in the 8th House District, and Bill Noelker, who lost to GOP Rep. Daniel Elliott by nearly 17 points in the 54th House District, $45,000 each for their campaigns, KREF records show.

House Republicans, by contrast, only invested in two special elections, contributing $50,700 to Quillen’s campaign and $25,000 to Elliott’s.

External GOP political groups were active in the March special elections, which may have been a factor in the House Republican caucus’ spending decisions, Democratic political consultant Matt Erwin told Pure Politics.

“I don’t know how wise that is because they don’t tend to put money into field volunteer engagement, which when you’re dealing with a low-turnout election is probably the wisest place to place your resources,” he said in a phone interview on Saturday.

The two Senate caucuses invested most of their campaign cash in incumbents who faced primary challenges.

Senate Republicans gave Sen. Albert Robinson, who topped his primary challenger by more than 10 points, $25,000 while Senate Democrats contributed $12,250 to Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones and $11,250 to Senate Minority Caucus Chair Gerald Neal, their KREF reports show.

Jones won his primary in the 31st Senate District by more than 42 points while Neal won a three-way contest in the 33rd Senate District by more than 16 points.

Danny Briscoe, a political consultant and former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, called the Senate Democrats’ decision to focus on Jones’ and Neal’s primaries “self-serving” given their roles in leadership, the incumbents’ already sizable fundraising advantages over their opposition and the general safety in their positions, evidenced by their double-digit victories.

Briscoe said he was aware of polling that showed Jones with a substantial 30- to 40-point lead in his contest against Glenn Martin Hammond, of Pikeville.

“The caucus should help candidates who have a race that they could lose,” Briscoe told Pure Politics in a phone interview. “… If they were in tight races with a chance of losing or competitive races then sure, but they weren’t in competitive races.”

“As a supposed leader of the Democratic party, (Jones) should be raising money to help the House candidates and not taking money for his own race when he’s got a 40-point lead and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised,” he added. “It’s ridiculous.”

But Erwin saw no reason for criticism of the financial moves.

In the case of Jones, who doesn’t face opposition in the Nov. 8 election, “the primary was the general election,” he said.

“One of (the caucuses’) primary roles is to the support membership and defend incumbents, so it makes sense,” Erwin said.

The next fundraising report for the legislative caucuses will be due 30 days after the fall elections.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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