Attacks, finance issues color GOP US House race in Nashville

Campaign signs are posted outside a polling location on the first day of early voting on Friday, July 15, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. GOP lawmakers redistricted the left-leaning city early this year, splitting its one seat into three to help Republicans gain a seat. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican dustup to determine who tries to flip a Democratic congressional seat in Nashville this fall hit its final week, awash in attacks, a candidate’s campaign finance issues and even a lawsuit over a TV ad.

In the Aug. 4 primary election, voters in Tennessee’s open 5th Congressional District have grown familiar with nonstop TV ads from vaguely named groups blasting any of three top fundraising hopefuls in the nine-candidate GOP field — Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead.

The multimillion-dollar blitz follows GOP lawmakers’ effort to carve up Nashville three ways in U.S. House redistricting early this year, favoring their party. For Democrats, state Sen. Heidi Campbell is advancing to November unopposed.

Ogles is drawing attacks from Conservative Americans PAC and Tennessee Conservatives PAC, the latter whose biggest donation — $1 million — came from Oracle Executive Chairman Larry Ellison.

The group’s advertising claims Ogles didn’t pay his property taxes nine times and notes Ogles supported passage of a 2020 county sales tax increase referendum. Online records show Ogles paid his property taxes but was late — from a few days several times to more than 300 days once.

That 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 USA 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, not mentioning her later support to strip it down. The ad even links her to 9/11 because some of the hijackers used driver’s licenses and IDs from various states — but not Tennessee.

Harwell’s campaign has touted her immigration record, explaining there was a loophole discovered in the 2001 law and said she co-sponsored a proposed change. Repeal attempts failed, and a 2004 law instead offered those without Social Security numbers a driving certificate for up to one year. The program was suspended in 2006.

Her campaign has criticized Ogles’ backing from Americans for Prosperity, for which he was formerly Tennessee’s state director, because of its call for border security reforms paired with “a pathway to permanent legal status for current undocumented immigrants.” Ogles didn’t take that stance in a recent debate, saying, “if you’re here illegally, you must have a work visa, and you will never become a citizen.”

School Freedom Fund has received $15 million from Pennsylvania billionaire investor Jeff Yass. It has criticized Harwell and Winstead, blasting his votes in Democratic primaries in 2008 and earlier, and donations topping $2,500 to Democrats a dozen or more years ago. His federal donations to Republicans top $36,000.

Ogles has drawn scrutiny over his campaign finances, which he reported a week late and short of what he previously claimed. In May, he said he raised $453,000 in his campaign’s first 30 days. Later, he 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 tardiness could spur thousands of dollars in Federal Election Commission fines.

The delay and discrepancy in Ogles’ reporting drew condemnation from Winstead’s corner.

“It’s hard for folks to gain the trust of someone who purposefully doesn’t file a financial disclosure by law, doesn’t pay their bills, and generally misleads the public,” Winstead campaign consultant Chris Devaney said.

Ogles also has raised eyebrows over a super PAC spending to get him elected, while listing Lee Beaman — Ogles’ campaign chairman, per a May news release — as the outside group’s sole contributor, at $50,000. Main Street Nashville first reported on the connection.

In a WTN radio appearance this week, Ogles said he had initially counted “money that we had on hand, money that was pledged,” but then “firewalled off some of our donors away from the campaign to go run 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 can’t coordinate with political campaigns.

Harwell’s campaign decried how much outside groups are spending for Ogles compared with his own campaign, arguing he “will be controlled by the DC swamp” if he wins. Winstead’s campaign has spent more than $1.2 million; Harwell, about $600,000; and Ogles, about $301,000.

The candidates are taking swings themselves, as well. A Harwell ad calls Ogles a D.C. insider, lobbyist and tax raiser. A Winstead commercial deems his rivals “two career politicians.” Without naming Harwell, Ogles in a debate criticized her for supporting a 2017 state gas tax increase, without mentioning several tax breaks tied into it.

Republican redistricting ultimately led Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper not to run again because he didn’t believe he could win any of the new GOP-favorable Nashville seats. Fights over the GOP field followed, prompting state Republican Party officials to knock three GOP hopefuls off the ballot, including former President Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate, Morgan Ortagus.