NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson raised about $860,000 through some 31,700 campaign donations after Tennessee Republican lawmakers abruptly moved to expel him and two other Democrats for a gun control protest on the House floor, his campaign said.
The short-lived expulsion propelled the Memphis environmental activist, a fresh face just months into his first term, to become a nationally watched progressive figure who sat in the Oval Office.
His quick fame translated into a wave of campaign cash largely because Republicans opened the door for Pearson and fellow expelled Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville to accept donations from across the country just when the spotlight centered on them. Had Republican lawmakers left the two young Black lawmakers in office, they would’ve been banned from raising cash because a legislative session was ongoing.
Instead, in just two months, Pearson attracted, through average donations of about $27, an amount of campaign cash similar to what the Republican House speaker raised all of last year and into early 2023 through his campaign and his political action committee combined. The vast majority of Pearson’s haul — $814,000 — poured in during the week when he had been kicked out, but not yet reinstated.
“To see so much support, particularly from these tens of thousands of small-dollar donations, is a testament to what I believe is a people-powered movement, which is that we all have something to contribute, and our little bits of contribution makes a lot,” Pearson told The Associated Press.
The preliminary fundraising numbers Pearson’s campaign shared with the AP reveal just a partial picture of how much Democrats were able to capitalize after the Black lawmakers were expelled for protesting for GOP to pass gun control measures after the deadly shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee’s capital city. Their white colleague who joined them in protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, was spared by a single vote. Local officials reinstated Pearson and Jones within days.
The Jones and Johnson teams have yet to comment on how much they have raised.
Democrats have been relegated to the superminority in both legislative chambers for years, limiting their recourse mainly to complaining when Republicans want to halt debates quickly, or waive other House rules. Pearson and other Democrats hope the fundraising wave can help them cut into that margin.
Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor, said Pearson’s fundraising could have an impact, and given how very few competitive legislative districts there are in Tennessee — a net gain of even a few seats could be a win for Democrats.
“That amount of money is a testament to, really, how badly this issue went for House Republicans,” Syler said. “It gave Democrats an incredible platform in Tennessee that they haven’t had in a couple of decades.”
Pearson, Jones and Johnson have hit the national TV news circuit, visited President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House and made appearances outside Tennessee. Pearson was featured on a recent fundraising email pitch from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps elects state legislative Democrats nationwide.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, provided a significant assist. Murphy tweeted a link to a fundraising page in April, and his team said he helped raise more than $605,000 to split between Pearson and Jones.
By comparison, Pearson raised more than $144,000 for his early 2023 win to take office. Tennessee’s House Democratic Caucus, which spreads around its fundraising, raised nearly $233,000 over the 2022 election year into early 2023.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s campaign and his political action committee raised more than $830,000 combined in the 2022 election year into early 2023. Over that timeframe, the House Republican Caucus raised more than $448,000.
Reports thoroughly detailing the Democrats’ campaign cash hauls aren’t due until the middle of July, and with both Pearson and Jones heading into special general elections for their seats, only some of the money they have raised has been disclosed in required reports. Those amounts don’t include the few days of fundraising around the expulsions.
Other Democratic fundraising groups could also benefit from the expulsions.
Pearson spokesperson Daphne Thomas said the $814,000 in donations that came in while he was out of office from April 6-April 12 was in addition to nearly $9,000 that came in from the end of legislative session on April 21 through May 2. Additionally, Pearson raised more than $37,000 from May 2 through June 5, his special election campaign finance report shows.
For Jones’ special election, he raised more than $64,000 through more than 1,000 donations from April 21 through June 5, according to his campaign finance report. That does not include donations during the days between his expulsion and his reinstatement by Nashville officials on April 10.