Saturday, 16 January 2021

Koch-affiliated group spends $2 million on Bredesen attack ad

NASHVILLE — A Tennessee group funded by the conservative Koch political network has launched a $2 million TV and digital ad buy targeting Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Phil Bredesen over actions he took or proposed while serving as Tennessee’s governor.

Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee’s 30-second spot slams the former two-term governor for multimillion-dollar renovations he made to the governor’s mansion as well as a number of tax and fee hikes Bredesen either initiated or floated during his 2003-2011 tenure.

The state group is an arm of the national advocacy group funded by billionaire Charles Koch. AFP backs Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in the Nov. 6 contest to succeed retiring U.S. Sen Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican.

AFP’s ads, the first negative attacks of the campaign, are scheduled to run on broadcast and cable TV as well as online through Sept. 16.

But other outside groups are either already spending or plan to. For example, the Senate Leadership Fund, aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Democratic-aligned Majority Forward super PACs have already plunked down about $1.3 million each to air TV and radio ads in Tennessee. Those, however, are positive spots backing their respective candidates.

The AFP spot, however, opens with an image of a woman and young child shopping in a grocery stores. An announcer says, “When times are tough, we budget for our families. But when our state’s budget was in crisis, Phil Bredesen supported higher taxes on us. Higher gas taxes, sales taxes and more.

“And while we struggled through a recession, Bredesen wasted 9 million taxpayer dollars upgrading his governor’s mansion, a $4 million party cave. Gilded bathrooms and a kitchen worth two Tennessee homes,” the narrator adds as unflattering images of Bredesen and the executive residence are displayed. “Phil Bredesen lived the life. We paid the bill.”

Neither gas taxes nor sales taxes increased during Bredesen’s tenure, although he did say as he began his second term that he was open to a fuel-tax boost in order to draw down more federal funds. Republican Bill Haslam, who succeeded Bredesen as governor, later pressed successfully for gas and diesel tax increases in 2017 with the GOP-controlled General Assembly approving them.

In a digital ad that responds to the attack, Bredesen says, “Well, the attacks have started, and now you have to make sense of it all. Look, I’d rather be talking about ideas. So if you’re tired of attacks and shouting, if you’re looking for common sense and getting things done, I’m applying for the job.”

As governor, spokeswoman Alyssa Hansen said, Bredesen “balanced eight budgets without imposing an income tax or increasing the sales tax on Tennessee families. He also worked diligently with the Legislature to raise the tobacco tax to fund education and to close corporate tax loopholes that were siphoning resources away from public safety, health care, education and other priorities.”

Hansen also noted that Blackburn’s campaign “promised they would closely coordinate with dark money groups, and it’s clear they are making good on their promise of negative campaigning, following the losing ‘D.C. Diane’ playbook.” The latter was a reference to Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who earlier this month came in third in a four-candidate GOP gubernatorial primary packed with attack ads.

The reference to the governor’s residence stems from about a $19 million comprehensive renovation to the mansion implemented while Bredesen was governor. It included replacing deteriorating doors and windows, lead paint abatement and other hazardous issues as well as updating mechanical and electrical systems. It also brought the residence into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But it also included $9 million — $5 million of which came from private donations — for an underground facility, officially known as “Conservation Hall.” It was derided at the time by Republicans as “Bredesen’s bunker.”

Critics included Nashville auto dealer Lee Beaman, a prominent GOP donor, who lived in the same posh Nashville neighborhood.

A multimillionaire, Bredesen never lived at the residence, continuing to reside at his Nashville home. But while Republicans at the time blasted Bredesen over the “bunker,” they nonetheless later made use of it for a political fundraiser, the Times Free Press reported in 2011. A then-state Republican Party official defended use of the “bunker,” saying, “Well look, it was already paid for. It was already built.”

During the 2008 Great Recession, the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the governor and General Assembly did raise a number of taxes and fees either permanently or temporarily.

To keep the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund from going broke, for example, Bredesen successfully urged state lawmakers to temporarily boost Tennessee’s taxable wage base from $7,000 to $9,000, generating an estimated $245 million annually.

The legislation also included provisions to reduce the taxable wage base when the trust fund was restored to an adequate funding level. That was finally achieved on Jan. 1, 2018 with the taxable wage base back down to $7,000.

The pre-recession-approved 2007 cigarette tax hike, which is permanent, was projected to raise $160 million to $180 million a year, most of it going toward education.

And when Bredesen in 2010 threatened to slash funding for the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, panicked hospitals lobbied lawmakers to enact an “assessment” on non-government hospitals’ gross revenues. It raises an estimated $310 million annually with most of the money used to draw more federal Medicaid matching funds.

Haslam has recommended, and the Republican-run Legislature has extended, the law yearly.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter at @AndySher1.


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