Incumbents enjoy major money lead in key state races
by Tim Lockette
Jan 06, 2014 | 3249 views |  0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, left, confers with Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, during a public hearing at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: Dave Martin/The Associated Press
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, left, confers with Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, during a public hearing at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: Dave Martin/The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY -- Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has everything he needs to run a hard-fought campaign in 2014.

Everything, that is, except an opponent.

Marsh, the speaker pro tempore of the Alabama Senate, pulled in $93,500 in campaign donations in December, bringing his total campaign funds to $197,623. He's running ads on Anniston-area radio stations and sending out flyers. But no one has announced a run against him yet, and with the qualifying deadline expected to be moved up to Feb. 7, it's possible no one will.

"If people are thinking about running for office, they know it," he said. "But I haven't heard anything yet."

If Marsh seems to be sitting pretty for the 2014 election year, he's not alone. The latest round of campaign finance reports, filed at the end of last week, show incumbents in some of Alabama's most powerful offices building a substantial money lead over their opponents. In some cases, they're building war chests without any announced opposition at all.

Gov. Robert Bentley began 2014 with $2.7 million in campaign funds. Republican primary opponent Stacy Lee George had just $9.59 in the bank, and announced Democratic candidate Kevin Bass has yet to file a finance report, which isn't required until a candidate raises $1,000. Attorney General Luther Strange had nearly $1.2 million and no opponent with enough money to file a finance report. Like Marsh, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, has no opponent, or at least none with enough money to require the filing of a campaign finance report. Hubbard had $283,000 in campaign funds at the end of December.

And incumbents seem to be raising money with increasing speed. Hubbard brought in $114,500 in December, his best month since fundraising began. Bentley brought in $576,000 in December, and Marsh nearly doubled the size of his war chest in the same month.

It's not unusual for donors to gravitate to candidates who already seem to be in the lead, said Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University.

"So far, the governor is enjoying a political cakewalk," Brown said. "Eventually, all the groups and lobbyists say, 'Well, he's going to get re-elected so let's give him money.'"

No lobbying group, Brown said, wants to be among those who didn't show support for the winner.

Among the groups throwing their support behind Bentley in December were the architectural firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood; the insurance company ALFA; and United PAC, a group funded by Tennessee developer Franklin Haney. Each group gave $25,000 to Bentley in December.

Marsh, meanwhile, picked up $10,000 each from the physicians’ group Alabama Medical PAC and the Alabama Realtors PAC. He also got $5,000 each from the title loan company TitleMax, Alabama Dental PAC and the Petroleum & Convenience Marketers of Alabama PAC, among other contributors.

Incumbents got a non-monetary boost last week when Secretary of State Jim Bennett announced that qualifying for 2014 races would end Feb. 7. The original qualifying deadline was in April, but the U.S. Justice Department had questioned that deadline on the grounds that it didn't give enough time to process overseas absentee ballots.

The deadline, which still has to be approved by the Legislature, is likely to play to the advantage of incumbents, Brown said. The sooner incumbents know who's running against them, he said, the better it is for them.

In past election cycles, Brown said, it was typical for key figures such as the House speaker to run unopposed, collect lots of campaign funds and then distribute that money to other candidates.

Marsh said that's no longer possible under the state's current campaign finance laws. He said that if he reaches Election Day with leftover money, he would likely donate it to educational institutions, something that is permitted under the law.

Bentley’s campaign spokeswoman Rebekah Mason, echoed that sentiment.

“Alabama law prohibits the Bentley campaign from contributing money to any PACs or other campaigns,” she wrote in an email. “Contributions made to the Bentley for Governor Campaign will be used for the governor’s re-election campaign.”

Hubbard, the House speaker, is using his campaign cash to go on the offensive against his critics. Campaign records show he paid $71,000 to two law firms -- Birmingham-based White, Arnold and Dowd and Pell City-based Trussell, Funderburg, Rea and Bell, for "legal services."

"We're investigating the false and malicious things that have been said about the speaker," said lawyer Lance Bell, of Trussell, Funderburg, Rea and Bell.

Bell said Hubbard's lawyers sent "cease and desist" letters to some people spreading what he described as false information about Hubbard. He wouldn't say who received the letters or what allegations they made. Bell said his firm had not been hired to defend Hubbard against any sort of legal charge.

Even in some contested races, incumbents seemed to do well in December. In the race for lieutenant governor, former Cullman lawmaker James Fields raised more than $10,000 in December, and spent nearly all of it, making him the first Democrat to spend significantly in a race for a statewide constitutional office. Stan Cooke, who is challenging Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey for the Republican nomination, ended December with $12,034 in campaign money. But Ivey towered over both of them with $409,843, more than $85,000 of which was raised in December.

In Senate District 13, Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, pulled ahead of his two opponents in December. Officials in both parties say they expect District 13, which covers parts of rural east Alabama from Cherokee County to Chambers County, to be a hard-fought battleground in 2014.

Dial brought in $39,000 in contributions in December, ending the month with $127,800. Major donations included $7,000 from BIPAC, a group funded largely by the coal company Drummond Co. and Great Southern Wood Preserving; $5,000 from the Alabama Power Employees PAC; and $5,000 from the Alabama Realtors PAC.

Tim Sprayberry, Dial's opponent in the Republican primary, reported no contributions in December, and ended the month with $4,881. Democratic candidate Darrell Turner reported $3,760 and ended the month with $55,262.

Turner works for a pipefitters' union, and $2,000 of his December money was from a pipefitters' organization; the rest was from individual donors.

"We knew December would be slow because of the holidays," said Grant Hallmark, spokesman for Turner's campaign. "People are not in their offices for half the month."

Hallmark said Turner's campaign was ready for the "blackout" -- the temporary ban on campaign donations that begins when the Legislature convenes next week. Dial said he tried to do a lot of fundraising in December because of the ban.

"We were trying to raise $200,000 before the session," he said. "We got pretty close."

Marsh, the Anniston senator, said he still thinks an opponent will emerge in his district before the Feb. 7. filing deadline. Brown, the political science professor, said that the more money incumbents have, the more they're likely to frighten off potential competitors, who may despair of catching up in the money race.

"If you can raise that much money early, you can run billboards early," he said. "You can be visible and visibly well-funded, which will be noticed by anyone who's considering running against you."

But some candidates are unfazed by the money gap. Kevin Bass, who announced last month as a Democratic candidate for governor, said he hasn't even started fundraising yet, and he said he's not worried.

"It's a marathon, not a race," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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