Written by Paul C. Barton, Tennessean Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - It's one of the folkways of Capitol Hill: incumbents keeping large amounts of cash in their campaign accounts as a way of scaring off potential challengers.
"No one knows what the next election holds," Cal Jillson, political analyst at Southern Methodist University, said of why lawmakers like large war chests.
Some in the Tennessee congressional delegation seem especially good at it.
As of March 31, Republican Reps. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump and John Duncan of Knoxville, along with Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, had cash-on-hand totals for their 2014 races that exceeded what they spent on getting re-elected in 2012.
For Fincher and Duncan, the contrast was especially sharp.
Fincher spent $911,703 on last year's race but has $1.72 million in cash for any 2014 opponent who may surface. Duncan spent $548,501 on the 2012 race but has cash on hand of $1.55 million.
Cooper was more in line with his previous bank balance. He spent $664,008 on last year's race and has cash on hand of $674,463.
Two other members of the delegation already have almost as much cash on hand as they spent on 2012 races. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, has $1.36 million ready for 2014 after spending $1.4 million on her 2012 race. And Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has $799,896 after spending $820,327.
Even Republican Sen. Bob Corker, elected to a second term last year, has $5.81 million in cash on hand. That is more than the $5.45 million cost of his 2012 race.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, running for re-election in 2014, has cash on hand of $1.80 million, about 40 percent of his spending in 2008.
The fundraising figures for Tennessee members also stand out when compared with the rest of Congress. The average cash on hand for incumbent U.S. House members as of March 31 was $432,183, a figure bested by Blackburn, Cohen, Cooper, Duncan and Fincher, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Federal Election Commission says that for all 2014 House candidates - incumbents and their known challengers so far - the average cash on hand is just $41,263.
Of all the Tennessee members' figures, congressional experts find Fincher's $1.72 million bankroll especially noteworthy.
"Years ago, a congressman told me that he was determined never to have a paltry total in his campaign account, no matter how secure he felt, because little money was 'a flashing neon sign saying "come run against me." ' That's a reasonable rule for any incumbent who wants to be re-elected without breaking a sweat," said Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political analyst.
"But (Fincher's) large total certainly is an active deterrent to serious opposition in a primary or general. The challenger is starting way behind, and it's tough to beat even a damaged incumbent."
Added Jillson, "A lot of members would love to be in his position."
Another reason members stay aggressive at fundraising - even when their own race doesn't require it - is to be able to make large donations to their national party committee and other candidates, enhancing their influence.
"For what it's worth, my sense is that $1.7 million would definitely get him (Fincher) noticed as someone with a knack for fundraising. If he can do it consistently, he may achieve 'rising star' status in the Republican Party," said University of Memphis political scientist Eric Groenendyk.
For 2012 races, Fincher gave $74,375 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for The Cook Political Report, said the contrast between Fincher's $1.7 million and Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais' $87,427 in cash on hand is especially striking.
DesJarlais is fundraising in the wake of revelations about his 2001 divorce, including that he had had extramarital affairs and encouraged some women to have abortions. He was significantly outraised by state Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and state Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas.
As of March 31, Tracy had $404,001 on hand, while Carr, who didn't officially enter the race until Thursday, had $192,641.
"It's like a tale of two sophomores," Wasserman said, comparing Fincher and DesJarlais.
"There's no secret to why DesJarlais' fundraising is abysmal; most Tennessee donors are treating him like a political dead man walking. On the other hand, Fincher cultivated a following as the poster child of the 2010 Republican wave and is seen as a favorite of party leadership. That helps him significantly, both in D.C. and Tennessee."
Fincher's fundraising is helped by his committee posts - Agriculture and Financial Services, said Wendy Schiller, political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. Both oversee industries that like to make campaign contributions.
"And depending on how secure he looks to campaign contributors, he might now be considered a strong longer-term investment," Schiller said.