(WJHL) — If Tennessee’s First Congressional District didn’t extend west of Washington and Sullivan counties, State Rep. Timothy Hill would be preparing to contest the general election and, it’s probably safe to assume, pack his bags for the nation’s capital.
Instead, Kingsport pharmacist and political neophyte Diana Harshbarger piled up a huge advantage over runner-up Hill and third-place finisher Rusty Crowe in the six counties west of the Tri-Cities (excluding Hawkins) and rode that margin to victory in the Aug. 6 Republican primary.
Publicly available data that television stations must provide to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reveal one likely factor in the vote margin. Harshbarger’s TV ad spending in the Knoxville media market dwarfed that of most of her opponents.
If she defeats Democrat Blair Walsingham on Nov. 3 to continue the GOP’s 140-year winning streak in the district, Harshbarger can thank the voters of Sevier, Hamblen and Cocke counties particularly.
Those three counties represented just over a fifth of the total vote count compared to two-thirds in the Tri-Cities, but alone they helped flip Harshbarger from a 1,115-vote Tri-Cities deficit to a 1,425-vote lead over Hill.
The other lower end counties — Greene, Jefferson and Hancock — pushed that margin to 2,345 as Hill wound up a distant seventh in the lower end. Crowe, a longtime state senator from Johnson City, trailed Harshbarger by just 403 votes in the Tri-Cities but was 2,496 votes behind her in the lower end.
One way those folks got to know Harshbarger — as well as Josh Gapp, another political newcomer who outperformed in the lower end — was through TV advertising. FCC records show Harshbarger spent $320,000 on broadcast ads alone in the Knoxville market.
Gapp, a Knoxville doctor who nearly tied Harshbarger in the lower end, spent $199,000. Records show the Hill campaign itself spent no TV money in the Knoxville market, but the Club for Growth PAC — which endorsed Hill — spent $129,000 there.
Overall sixth-place finisher John Clark, a former Kingsport mayor, spent $121,000 on broadcast TV in the market while Crowe spent $44,000 and Darden a mere $14,000.
A difference Darden didn’t have
Outfunded roughly four to one by Harshbarger, who put $1.4 million of her own money into the campaign, Darden said Wednesday he faced a disadvantage no amount of traditional campaigning seemed able to overcome.
“We were in the lower end a lot, specifically in Cocke County and Hamblen County and Sevier County,” Darden said. “We spent a lot of time on the ground there and had generated a lot of support from elected officials, from Chamber of Commerce folks, from industrial recruiters.”
What the former Johnson City mayor described as a “traditional grassroots campaign” left him feeling good about his support, but “we knew down the stretch that we were being outspent heavily in the Knoxville TV market,” Darden said.
Darden said his campaign had hopes of a second-place finish or possibly even a win in Cocke County. In the Sevier County town of Seymour, Darden said people who he met in door-to-door campaigning told him he was the only candidate who’d visited their area in that way.
“We had a great ground game there,” Darden said. “We had a lot of signs and in the end it turns out that the credit card and the television ads carried the day far more so than any of the other traditional means of campaigning.”
East Tennessee State University political science associate professor Andrew Battista said Darden and the race’s other lower-funded candidates shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome, if they were.
Battista told News Channel 11 in late July that money definitely talks in elections, particularly if candidates can put the kind of money Harshbarger, Gapp and Clark are investing into the effort.
“If you can self fund to that extent you can get your message out,” Battista said.
He said the majority of candidates who raise and spend the most money in campaign for federal office win — but that’s not a guarantee.
“In a particular race it’s very difficult to know whether it will be one of the election campaigns in which the rule holds or whether it will fall into the other category of exceptions to that rule,” he said.
For his part, Darden said he couldn’t recall the First District previously having as much money spent on the campaign for the Congressional seat.
That’s largely true. The last crowded primary in 2006 saw Greeneville attorney Richard Roberts pour $2.1 million of his own money into the race only to finish third — but the other top three candidates spent an average of less than $400,000.
This year, accounting for the Club for Growth spending on Hill’s behalf, three candidates topped $1 million — Harshbarger, Gapp and Hill — and Clark’s total was $943,000.
That kind of money can buy a lot of TV exposure. Harshbarger, for example, had more than 1,300 spots air just in the Knoxville broadcast market.
Unless something changes, Darden thinks the nature of Congressional campaigns has shifted.
“This marks a change, and in the future campaigns better be very, very well funded, because television is proving to be an effective and essential part of the campaign.”