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Front Page - Friday, August 3, 2018

View from the Hill: Hard to find an ‘adult in the room’ in this year’s campaign ads

TV executives, ad reps and political consultants will hate to see this governor’s primary race end. But they can take solace from all the pain they’ve helped dole out while dining on caviar and grilled halibut while in the Caribbean Islands this fall, if they like fish eggs.

With spending topping $51 million, more than $45 million of it in the Republican primary, they can only pray for a knockdown, drag-out fight this fall. None of this crap about, “Let’s work together.”

It’ll be hard to get much dirtier, though, than we’ve seen in elections across Tennessee this summer. But hasn’t it been fun – or at least funny – and without a little humor, life would hardly be worth living.

The best ad came from House Speaker Beth Harwell’s campaign, the one in which she calls herself “the adult in the room” and depicts U.S. Rep. Diane Black and businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd as children fighting among themselves after they put out a rash of commercials stabbing each other and depicting themselves as the most conservative.

The ad points out she already led the move in Tennessee against sanctuary cities and other conservative work and ends with Harwell reading the kids a book.

Harwell, whose campaign was listless before her ad topped the charts, should have gotten points based on that one spot. Seriously, she could only go so far talking about how her father and mother met while he was playing minor league baseball.

That one ad alone might have been a turning point in the campaign.

It was so good, in fact, it spurred 6th Congressional District candidate Bob Corlew to put out a similar piece showing his opponent, former Agricultural Commissioner John Rose, acting like a child, trying on different outfits and pulling liberal ideas from a trunk.

While we’re at it, Rose’s attack ad on “Swampy Bob Corlew” delves into the archives to find ammunition from Corlew’s time on the Murfreesboro city council when he called for council members to bump their pay to $200 from $40 a month.

In fairness to Corlew, $40 a month is pretty low for attending all those painfully boring meetings. Then again, the minimum wage in the mid-1980s was only $3.25.

Oddly enough, Rose forgot to mention that Corlew, the former Rutherford County chancellor, rented his Murfreesboro home to now-convicted felon Joe Russell, the mastermind of an e-cigarettes scheme at the county jail that got his boss, now-former Sheriff Robert Arnold, tossed in prison for nearly five years.

Rose also failed to mention Corlew allowed the religion of Islam to be put on trial a few years ago in a lawsuit filed against Rutherford County challenging whether it gave adequate public notice for a planning commission hearing to discuss a proposed mosque construction plan. But that might make Corlew look too conservative.

A little fishy

Getting back to this gubernatorial Republican primary, Black had to go away from her initial ads when she caught and released possibly the smallest fish ever to bite a worm in the history of Old Hickory Lake. She was trying to come down hard on immigration policies dealing with criminals in that ad.

Truth be told, the first fish she tosses back into the lake is decent-sized. But good Lord, throwing that poor creature could almost be considered abuse. You’re supposed to let them slide back into the water.

Anyway, Black, who crushed former state Rep. Joe Carr with negative ads in a 2016 congressional race, opted to go for the jugular again with Boyd and Lee, castigating them as moderates in conservative clothing. And, truth be told, they appeared to be painting themselves as more conservative than they really are.

Lee, early on, came off as a compassionate guy whose life changed when his first wife died in a horse riding accident. He’s worked with low-income children and was the only Republican to incorporate much religious faith into his campaign.

Boyd, who was a Bill Haslam clone at the start of the campaign, started hammering on immigration and then ran ads showing him standing tall with law enforcement agents, taking a tough stance against lawbreakers.

But apparently, he decided he couldn’t be such a nice guy anymore. And his most memorable ad, one that could stick with Black for quite some time, calls her “D.C. Diane” in the Washington “swamp” and makes her come off as wishy-washy over the much-acclaimed Mexican border wall to keep out all those dratted illegal immigrants.

“You can’t build a wall. That won’t work,” she tells “liberal” reporter Katie Couric in a TV interview. Of course, Black has been hammering immigrants over the head for years, but the ad does make her look as if she said one thing a few years ago and then decided to cozy up to President Donald Trump when he called for building a wall, despite a price tag of as much as $20 billion.

While Harwell’s fighting kids ad might have put her back into the race, Lee followed up with his own creative piece, one that might have distanced him from Black and Boyd.

He was accused of backing Democratic candidates with donations, including former Nashville Mayors Megan Barry, Karl Dean and Phil Bredesen, and he responded with his own spot saying he won’t “go down that road.”

“It’s not what a leader does,” he says, and he points out “dishonest” attack ads “reveal a lot more truth about the person running the ad than the person in the ad.”

He followed that up with yet another commercial acknowledging he gave some money to those folks but that 99 percent of his campaign donations went to Republicans over the years.

If you’ve ever looked at candidates’ campaign contributions, you’ll notice some business people give money to the campaigns of people running against each other. Then, they can get their foot in the door to be heard no matter who wins. It makes good business sense.

Yet it did lead to another ad by Black, a mailer that says “Meet the Three Liberalteers sponsored and paid for by Bill Lee.” It shows Lee tossing money toward Dean, Barry and Bredesen with all four wearing Three Musketeer garb and Democratic donkeys on their chests.

It could score high for creativity, if such a competition existed.

But Lee’s response might have been even better. In a TV ad, he says he has three opponents running attack ads against him. “Why?” he asks. “We’re winning and they’re scared.”

Lee notes he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and is “the only conservative outsider in a field of politicians.”

In fact, allusions to Trump ran aplenty in the Republican race, though they never mentioned anything about sending hush money to porn stars, cozying up to Vladimir Putin or trying to fire people investigating potential connections to Russian hacking and manipulation of the 2016 presidential election.

Unfortunately for Harwell, she made her last-gasp TV ad with a plug for medical marijuana, the one major issue separating her from the rest. Harwell supported legislation to set up a system for medical marijuana during the 2018 session, and she hoped it would resonate with voters in the waning days of the Republican primary.

Sorry, but in a battle to see who can get to the right of Attila the Hun, medical weed just goes up in smoke.

So, as we take a breather and prepare for November, the question is: Will the ads be as scurrilous as they were for the last month? After all, we’re talking about Republican versus Democrat.

Republicans apparently forgot the words of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” With that in mind, look for the carnage to start early and continue until Nov. 6, enabling TV people and political jockeys to load their pockets one more time.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.