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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, July 27, 2018

Posted at 3:47 PM, Jul 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-27 16:47:27-04


By Pat Nolan, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

July 26, 2018



The 2018 Tennessee primary election for governor had a very interesting final full week, especially on the Republican side.

It was full of national and statewide speculation about whether President Donald Trump might endorse Congressman Diane Black. She is the middle of at least a three-way candidate scramble to win the Republican nomination for governor.

There is some split over who is trying to stop the Trump endorsement of Black. The Breitbart of Tennessee, THE TENNESSEE STAR blames Governor Bill Haslam who the publication labels as a Never-Trumper. THE NEW YORK TIMES sees it as a broader effort under the leadership of some Republican governors (Haslam is the current chair of the Republican Governors Association) to hold Trump back from primary endorsements that might result in a candidate being nominated who they fear will be easier for Democrats to beat in the fall.

Governor Haslam himself spoke directly to the endorsement issue when he met with reporters on Thursday. THE TENNESSEAN relates:

“Speaking to reporters in Nashville on Thursday, Haslam reiterated his comments.

"I don't think it's helpful for the White House to be in primaries," the governor said.

"I would advise everybody that's not a participant in it to keep their powder dry and help us win in November," he said, later clarifying that he asked the White House in February to stay out of GOP primary elections.”

I am also told by a source that President Trump’s own (re) election committee has advised him to endorse another GOP gubernatorial candidate rather than Black, although the source did not name who that is.

Here are both THE TENNESSEE STAR and NEW YORK TIMES stories.

Interestingly, Vice President Mike Pence did come to Tennessee last weekend (the Chattanooga area) to campaign for GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn. He also took the time to say some good words about Diane Black, who was on stage with him. Reports the Associated Press via THE TENNESSEAN:

“The vice president… took time in his half-hour speech to praise U.S. Reps. Diane Black and Marsha Blackburn, who are hoping to lead the statewide GOP ticket this fall. Black and Blackburn joined the vice president on stage to trumpet the Republican administration’s work.”

“Pence praised Black for her “great leadership” for supporting tax cuts and pushing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the health care law championed by former President Barack Obama. Pence referred to Black as “a champion for life” for her stand against abortion.”

“Trump has endorsed Blackburn in the Senate race but has not formally backed a candidate in the GOP primary for governor, where Black is one of four leading contenders.”

It may not be the presidential endorsement Black wants, but the Pence support but it is likely to be helpful in these final days. In fact, by Friday (today), the Vice President issued on Twitter what amounts to an endorsement of Black:

"There are great candidates running but Diane has been my friend for years, we served together in the House and she has my support," the vice president said.

While all four GOP gubernatorial candidates continued their attack ad themes in this final week, Black, in her latest ad, did go back to her campaign roots, touting her conservative endorsements and her relationship with President Trump moving ahead with his agenda in Washington. She also softened her attacks a bit on both businessmen Randy Boyd of Knoxville and Bill Lee of Franklin. The Black ad says they are both “good men…but moderates…the kind of Republicans who help get Democrats elected.”

It is not unusual for candidates to soften or pull back on their attack ads in the final days of a campaign. They don’t ditch the attacks but do mix back in earlier spots touting their candidacy. Here is an example from the Boyd campaign.

But the attacks are still on, both in direct mail and with targeted websites. Here are a couple of attack web site examples with the Black campaign attacking Boyd and the Boyd campaign attacking Lee.

The political atmosphere is becoming so toxic that this week a man has been arrested and indicted for threatening Congressman Black.

The latest campaign finance disclosures also found this race topping a record $50 million with about a week to go in the primary and the fall campaign still to come.

The final full week of the primary campaign also saw a highly controversial new poll released. The JMC Analytics and Polling phone poll of 500 registered voters found 26% support for Lee, 20% for Randy Boyd, 19% for Diane Black, and 16% for Beth Harwell. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Polling site FiveThirtyEight gives JMC at C-plus ranking.

Among the JMC Analytics poll’s (other) findings:

“When testing the favorability of the top four contenders, all have over 90% name recognition. Bill Lee’s numbers are the strongest (52-17% favorability ratio). Beth Harwell also has a respectable 39-18% favorability ratio. Randy Boyd’s favorability ratio is 39-31%, while Diane Black is “underwater” 45-30%.”

“In summary, Bill Lee has a lead (but not a secure one) in the primary race for Governor, while the remaining three major candidates are statistically neck and neck with a relatively low undecided percentage less than two weeks from the primary.”

Not surprisingly both the Black and Boyd campaigns were quick to strongly speak out to dismiss the poll findings and its credibility, especially the Boyd camp.

Within hours there were also questions coming from within conservative circles about the relationship of the polling firm with consultants who have worked for Boyd.

As for the Lee campaign, I received an e-mail from them last Friday afternoon (after I had filed my column). It contains a TV ad that seemed to predict that he was now ahead in the polls. This ad came out a few days before the controversial JMC Analytics poll hit the media.

And there is yet another poll out late in the week. All I have seen are the figures below which both reflect (Lee ahead) and contrast (Harwell second) from the earlier JMC Analytics survey.

New poll Tennessee Employees Action Movement and Spry Strategies . Governors race

Bill Lee 29%

Beth Harwell 22%

Diane Black 19%

Randy Boyd 15%

Undecided 15%

I have no other data about this poll in terms of sample size methodology, margin for error, etc. It appears the survey was funded by the PAC of the TSEA, The Tennessee State Employees Association. That group did endorse Harwell (for what it’s worth). I’d say without more information, take this survey with a bigger grain of salt than usual.

In these final days, there are still more controversies erupting on the campaign trail including charges by the Black campaign that Bill Lee is “anti-veteran” because of a legal dispute with a former Lee Company employee over a layoff nine years ago. The Lee campaign responded by sending “a cease and desist” letter to the Black campaign. Here’s more from THE TENNESEE JOURNAL: ON THE HILL political blog site.

There are also questions being raised about Black and her husband’s support for a non-profit that ranks businesses based on their support or opposition on hot button social issues such as Planned Parenthood.

All these new controversies in the final days are bound to put even more pressures on the candidates, their campaigns and the Tennessee Republican Party to hold together and come out united for the fall, after an August 2 vote which right now still looks too close to predict Many I talk with see the key to victory being who does well in West Tennessee. That’s the only grand division of the state which does not have a GOP candidate who lives in or has business holdings there.

Randy Boyd did pick up an endorsement this week from THE KNOXVILLE NEWS- SENTINEL which is published in his part of the state, East Tennessee. Read more here.

Last week Bill Lee received the endorsement of the conservative editorial page of the CHATTANOOGA TIMES-FREE PRESS which is outside his expected political base (Middle Tennessee). So far endorsements have not been made by the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL or THE TENNESSEAN in Nashville. Both are owned by Gannett as is the Knoxville paper (and others). PROGRAM NOTE: On INSIDE POLITIC this week, we discuss THE TENNESSEAN’s endorsement plans for August and November with David Plazas, the papers’ Director of Opinion and Engagement.

There were also endorsements this week from two prominent members of Nashville’ music community. Ricky Skaggs did a fundraising concert for Bill Lee while Emmylou Harris is doing two for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean.


With bi-partisan heat building against President Trump’s tariffs, the White House this week suddenly announced $12 billion in aid will be made available to American farmers being damaged by the extra tax burden.

Quickly Democratic Senate candidate former governor Phil Bredesen reacted on Twitter:

“Glad the Administration received the message--our farmers are hurting and need relief. As always, the instinct from DC is to pull out the credit card and not worry about the bill. Our farmers don’t want handouts and taxpayers don’t want more debt. Simple solution: end the tariffs.”

And Bredesen was not alone. Current Tennessee Senator Bob Corker issued an even more blistering response:

“I am glad that the administration finally seems to understand that the Trump-Pence tariffs are hurting the American people,” said Corker. “These tariffs are a massive tax increase on American consumers and businesses, and instead of offering welfare to farmers to solve a problem they themselves created, the administration should reverse course and end this incoherent policy. We will continue to push for a binding vote here in Congress to reassert our constitutional role on national security-designated tariffs.”

On Wednesday, a meeting between President Trump and European Union officials seem to indicate a truce may be coming on one front of the trade war. But this development left Senator Corker still unhappy with the Trump administration.

“While we await details from the administration on what was agreed to…. this appears to be a small step in the right direction,” said Corker. “For weeks, we have been calling on the administration to reverse course, lower its rhetoric, and engage in a constructive dialogue with our friends and allies. It appears the pressure applied by members on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the outrage expressed by the American public has had an impact. I am hopeful the White House will move quickly to reach a final agreement because, until it does, the American people will continue to pay the price for the administration’s misguided trade policies.”

Concerned tariffs will have a bad impact on Tennessee’s auto-related economy, Senator Lamar Alexander is seeking to delay tariffs on imported cars and he has introduced legislation in Washington about it.

Late in the week, Governor Haslam weighed on the tariffs, including the President’s $12 billion aid package to farmers.

"I would rather address the root situation," Haslam told reporters Thursday. "Let’s look at the tariff and its impact in the big picture of our agricultural economy."

"While $12 billion is a lot of money, it’s a rounding error in terms of our overall farm economy," Haslam said.

"I’d rather see the tariff situation addressed — we have a situation right now whether it be pork or soybeans where prices are tanking and it’s a very serious issue for our farmers," he concluded.”

As far as I can tell, GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn this week has made no new statements on the tariff issue. She had earlier signed a letter to the White House expressing a desire to see the administration move slowly on tariffs to avoid unanticipated negative impacts on the domestic economy. This national Associated Press article is raising questions about whether the issue is already hurting her.

Meanwhile Phil Bredesen took a media hit in THE WASHINGTON POST this week. The paper’s Fact Checker on politics awarded three (out of four) Pinocchios in claiming his efforts while governor, cut Tennessee’s meth problem “in half.”

THE POST also had story about Congressman Blackburn too. It seems to indicate she may have made an acquaintance of a Russian who is a part of the ongoing Muller probe:

Reports the paper based on an earlier TENNESSEAN story:

“Amid ongoing probes into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, one Nashville attorney is gaining notice for his relationship to a Russian banker with Kremlin ties.

G. Kline Preston, IV, a graduate of the Nashville School of Law, has authored books about Russian regulations, and has represented clients in Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Cuba and England.

Among Preston’s Russian clients and longtime friends is Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian politician who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Torshin is under scrutiny for illegally channeling Russian funds to the National Rifle Association in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Preston first introduced Torshin to then-president of the NRA David Keene in 2011 and the pair attended the NRA’s annual convention in Nashville in 2015.

And Preston is a friend and confidant of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Corker (R). Blackburn reportedly also met with Torshin in 2012. (Her campaign spokeswoman did not provide any comment specifically on the allegations but instead referred me back to the Tennessean account in which a campaign spokesman made a generic comment to the effect that Blackburn “believes Russia is not our friend — and thinks we need to treat Russia like any bully: we need to be strong enough to prevent them from pushing the United States and our allies around, and we need to draw firm lines and show them that America is not to be trifled with.”) With the Butina indictment and ongoing focus on Russia’s ties to the NRA, Blackburn will face questions.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party put out a statement demanding she explain her Russian contacts. (“In 2012, she met with accused spy master Alexander Torshin when he visited Williamson County — her home county — as an election observer, squired by her former campaign president, attorney, and friend G. Kline Preston IV. Blackburn owes Tennessee voters an explanation of these meetings.”)

Blackburn spent last week furiously trying to distance herself from Trump’s Helsinki comments. But if the issue comes down to who will hold Trump accountable on Russia and take oversight of Russia’s far-flung influence racket seriously, Blackburn will find herself playing defense.”

Finally, if you think a lot of money has been spent in the governor’s race, read this NASHVILLE POST article for what lies ahead in the U.S. Senate contest this fall, especially with outside groups about to start chiming in.


With two days to go (Friday and Saturday) it appears the early vote statewide will reach close to 600,000. The good news is that seems to be up by a healthy margin compared to other recent off-year elections in Tennessee in 2014 and 2010.

Hot races top to bottom across the state on the local and state levels are clearly helping those total. We need it with Tennessee ranked 50th (or dead last) in the country in voter turnout in 2014.

From looking at the numbers, I have not discerned any patterns that indicate an advantage for a particular candidate. The totals in the early voting overall statewide are running 2 to 1 Republican over Democrat, although Democratic totals appear up in Shelby, Davidson and even Williamson Counties. I am not sure what that portends but I would say that historically finding a lot of Democrats in Williamson County is about as likely as finding water on Mars. But then that happened this week too.


It seems the Briley administration has been dealing with land sale issues ever since it took office. While the matter played a big role (and remains unresolved) in funding the city’s new fiscally tight operating budget, the idea of land sales and swaps first came up as a part of a proposal the Mayor unveiled back in April with a downtown developer.

That original proposal generated its own set of critics and now the administration wants to bring a revised plan to the Council and the Metro Parks Board for consideration and approval. It is unclear if this revised proposal will result in a consensus being reached, but THE TENNESSEAN’s Joey Garrison has a good summary of where things stand.


The August 2nd primary elections are less than a week away. The final act of this mid-term cycle lies just ahead in November.

It’s been another rough and tumble campaign season here in Tennessee, especially the last 3-4 weeks in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Whatever happened to civility in politics or in our society in general? Is there a way our political and social discourse can improve?

One of those working hard to improve the situation is our guest on INSIDE POLTICS this week. He is David Plazas, Director of Opinion & Engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK—TENNESSEE, including THE TENNESSEAN here in Nashville.

Watch us! We also discuss THE TENNESSEAN’s plan on endorsements for the August and November elections.

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