Tennessee GOP gov race turns to spat over Trump, immigration

July 25, 2018 - 1:28 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Loyalty to President Donald Trump tops the Republican checklist in the governor's race in Tennessee, right up there with championing gun rights and low taxes and decrying abortion.

In TV ads and debates, the four leading GOP candidates are lauding Trump and his wall-building immigration crackdown while blasting each other as insufficiently supportive of the president.

It's been a pricey message: The four have added $33 million in combined personal wealth to their campaigns and spent about that much, setting records and more than doubling what they've raised through donations.

And their strategy continues ahead of the Aug. 2 primary despite scandals swirling around the White House, because even though Trump's approval ratings are low overall, he remains highly popular among Republican voters in national polls.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam warned the GOP candidates in a letter, saying: "No offense intended, but a lot of what was talked about during the campaign will not be the issues that end up on your desk as governor."

The biggest spenders say they're simply addressing voter concerns.

"One of the first questions people will ask me is, 'What is your position on supporting the president? What is your position on immigration?'" said Randy Boyd, a former economic development commissioner. "Once we can answer that for them, then we can talk to them about education, about jobs, about helping our rural communities, about getting broadband, about health care."

U.S. Rep. Diane Black agreed, pointing to TV ads promoting her work on Trump's tax law and her proximity to the president.

"We'll have plenty of time after we get out of this primary to talk again more about what we're going to do for the state of Tennessee, when I'm talking about things and opposing myself with a Democrat candidate," she said.

In other ads, Boyd and Bill Lee cast themselves as Trump-style businessmen, while House Speaker Beth Harwell, the field's only medical marijuana supporter, replays Trump's 2015 comments that "medical should happen."

A growing number of Republicans have criticized Trump for his appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his reluctance to acknowledge Russian interference in his election. Republican leaders in Congress distanced themselves from Trump's invitation for Putin to visit Washington, saying he's not welcome on Capitol Hill.

But Black and her rivals are showing no hint of disloyalty.

The "left wing just wants to find something to jump all over our president," Black told Fox Business Network after sitting next to Trump as he tried to clarify his comments on Russian interference. "He was strong when he was there in Europe and also with Putin and I'm very proud of him and his strength." 

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who has outspent former House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh on the Democratic side, said the governor's race "is not a referendum on President Trump."

"Clearly, on the Republican side, you see that in the ads, and the candidates must have made a determination that they think appealing or tying themselves to President Trump is a positive thing. But I think about what Gov. Haslam said ... he said those really aren't the issues that a governor deals with here," Dean said.

Polls suggest a close 3-way race between Black, Boyd and Lee, with Harwell not out of it. Lee's campaign grew more competitive as he talked about his farm, his business and his relationship with Jesus Christ, and now Black and Boyd are hitting at him.

"I figured I'd better tell you why," a Lee ad says. "We're winning, and they're scared."

On immigration, Boyd's team accuses Lee of leading a group that lobbied for amnesty; Lee chaired the state chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors in 1999, before the group's national team supported permanent residency for people here illegally in the 2000s.

Boyd's campaign also targeted Black's 2016 reaction to candidate Trump's promise to make Mexico fund a border wall: She said "first of all, you can't build a wall, that won't work." Boyd also criticizes Black's vote for a 2001 state law that allowed people without Social Security numbers to have driver's licenses. Black co-sponsored a failed repeal in 2002 and voted in 2004 to only offer one-year driving certificates, a program scrapped in 2006. Harwell voted for the 2001 and 2004 laws, too.

Candidate Black has padded her "tough-on-immigration" resume, introducing bills to crowd-fund the wall and make illegal crossings a felony, and claims her "can't build a wall" comments meant that a wall alone won't secure the border. She said she's voted for border wall money 11 times.

Black paints Boyd, meanwhile, as weak on immigration for donating $250,000 in 2016 to Conexion Americas, which opposed anti-sanctuary legislation and supports in-state tuition for students whose parents brought or kept them here illegally. Boyd's donation, however, paid to expand a commercial kitchen for culinary entrepreneurs.

Black also said Boyd's pet product company, Radio Systems Corp., avoided paying millions in taxes, albeit legally, by structuring its business internationally. Boyd said he doesn't think people want "a governor that encourages people to pay more taxes than they're legally required," and said his company paid $97 million in the last 12 years, a 34.77 percent tax rate.

Boyd and Black both targeted Lee for donating to Dean and other Democrats; Lee calls those business decisions by his mechanical contracting firm.

Harwell had some fun with her ad, dressing children as Lee, Boyd and Black. While they bicker, she says she's delivered on low taxes, balanced budgeting and outlawing sanctuary cities.

"There's no swamp here," said Harwell. "We're doing everything right in the state of Tennessee."