NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Republican tussle to determine who tries to flip a Democratic congressional seat in Nashville this fall has entered its final week, awash with attacks, a candidate’s campaign finance issues and even a lawsuit over an ad of television
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 an effort by Republican lawmakers to split Nashville three ways in U.S. House redistricting 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.
An ad from the USA Freedom Fund points to Harwell for a 2001 bill that allowed people without Social Security numbers, including those in the country illegally, to get driver’s licenses, not to mention 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 was formerly state director in Tennessee, because of his call for border security reforms combined with “a path to permanent legal status for immigrants no current papers”. 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. He has criticized Harwell and Winstead, with their votes in Democratic primaries in 2008 and earlier, and donations that exceeded $2,500 to Democrats a dozen or more years ago. His federal donations to Republicans exceed $36,000.
Ogles has faced scrutiny over his 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 through mid-July.
The delay 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 disclosures as required 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, Ogles’ campaign chairman, according to a May press release, as the group’s sole contributor external, with $50,000. Main Street Nashville first reported the connection.
In a WTN radio appearance this week, Ogles said he had initially counted “the money we had on hand, the money that was pledged,” but then “firewalled some of our donors outside the campaign to post positive ads,” 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. A Harwell ad says Ogles is a DC insider, lobbyist and tax collector. An ad for Winstead calls her rivals “two career politicians.” Without naming Harwell, Ogles in a debate criticized her for supporting a 2017 state gasoline tax increase, without mentioning several related tax breaks.
The Republican redistricting caused Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper not to run again because he didn’t believe 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.