NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican dust to determine who is trying flipping a Democratic congressional seat in Nashville this fall has reached its final week, filled with attacks, a candidate’s campaign finance issues and even a lawsuit over a TV ad.
As early voting ends in the Aug. 4 primary election, voters in Tennessee’s open 5th Congressional District have become familiar with non-stop TV ads from vaguely named groups blasting any of the top three hopeful fundraisers in the nine-candidate Republican field: Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. General Kurt Winstead.
The multimillion-dollar blitz follows Republican lawmakers’ effort to redistrict Nashville by cutting it three ways in the U.S. House earlier this year, favoring their party. For Democrats, state Sen. Heidi Campbell advances to November unopposed.
Ogles is under attack from the Conservatives of America PAC and the Tennessee Conservatives PAC, the latter of which has the largest donation, $1 million, from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.
The group’s publicity claims Ogles defaulted on his property taxes nine times and notes that Ogles supported passage of a county sales tax increase referendum in 2020. Records in line show that Ogles paid his property taxes but was late, from a few days several times to more than 300 days once.
This ad prompted Ogles to file a defamation lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Ogles is getting a boost from two groups linked to the Club for Growth: School Freedom Fund and USA Freedom Fund.
A School Freedom Fund ad targets Harwell for a 2001 bill that allowed people without Social Security numbers, including those in the country illegally, to get driver’s licenses, without mentioning its back support to remove it. The ad even links it to 9/11 because some of the hijackers used driver’s licenses and IDs from multiple states, but not Tennessee.
Harwell’s campaign has touted his immigration record, explaining that a loophole was discovered in the 2001 law and saying he is co-sponsoring a proposed change. Repeal attempts failed, and a 2004 law offered those without Social Security numbers a driver’s license for up to a year. The program was discontinued in 2006.
His campaign has criticized Ogles’ support of Americans for Prosperity, of which he previously served as Tennessee state director, because of his call for border security reforms combined with legislation that “offers a path to a permanent legal status for today’s undocumented immigrants.” Ogles didn’t take that position in a recent debate, saying, “if you’re here illegally, you have to have a work visa and you’re never going to become a citizen.”
School Freedom Fund has received $15 million from Pennsylvania billionaire investor Jeff Yass.
Ogles has drawn scrutiny on his own campaign finances, which he reported a week late and less than he previously claimed. In May, he said he raised $453,000 in the first 30 days of his campaign. It later reported $247,100 from donors through June, plus a $320,000 loan. Ogles’ most recent report shows he raised another $17,300 in the first half of July.
The latest report could result in thousands of dollars in fines from the Federal Election Commission.
The delay and discrepancy in Ogles’ reporting led to the conviction of Winstead’s corner.
“It’s hard for people to trust someone who willfully fails to file financial statements by law, doesn’t pay their bills and generally misleads the public,” said Winstead campaign consultant Chris Devaney .
Ogles has also raised eyebrows over super PAC spending to get him elected, while listing Lee Beaman, referred to as Ogles’ campaign chairman in a May press release, as the only col ·contributor to the external group, with $50,000. Nashville Main Street reported for the first time about the connection.
In an appearance on WTN radio this week, Ogles said he had initially counted “the money we had on hand, the money that was pledged,” but then “cut some of our donors out of the campaign to run ads positives,” noting that “You can’t coordinate. You can’t communicate.”
Super PACs raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support federal candidates, but cannot coordinate with political campaigns.
Harwell’s campaign decried how much outside groups are spending on Ogles compared to his own campaign, arguing that he “will be controlled by the D.C. swamp” if he wins. Winstead’s campaign has spent more than $1.2 million; Harwell, about $600,000; and Ogles, about $301,000.
Candidates are also making changes. Harwell has an ad attacking Ogles, calling him a DC insider, a lobbyist and a tax collector. Winstead, meanwhile, has an ad calling her rivals “two career politicians.” Without naming Harwell, Ogles in a debate criticized her for supporting a state gas tax increase in 2017. He failed to mention that the law also included several tax breaks.
The primary extension follows Republican redistricting that ultimately led Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper not to run again because he didn’t think he could win any of Nashville’s new GOP-friendly seats. Scuffles across the GOP field followed, prompting state Republican Party officials to remove three GOP contenders from the ballot, including former President Donald Trump-endorsed candidate Morgan Ortagus.