The tone in Tennessee's 3rd District congressional race changed Wednesday, as a negative advertisement from Scottie Mayfield drew criticism from his fellow Republican candidates and triggered a response from a super PAC.
Despite earlier commitments to keep his campaign "positive," Mayfield launched a television ad Tuesday directly criticizing the voting record of Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, alleging the congressman voted with President Barack Obama "one out of four times."
On Wednesday, Mayfield's campaign offered no apologies, saying the candidate had not changed his position, despite earlier comments praising the congressman for his votes.
"All of this information became available to us, and most of it to the public, after Scottie made those remarks," said Tommy Hopper, general consultant to the Mayfield campaign. "This is not a change in position; it's a change in information. Having an East Tennessee congressman who votes with Obama more than the rest of the Tennessee members, with the highest Obama support score of any Tennessee Republican, is disappointing."
Hopper's comments were in reference to a survey conducted by Congressional Quarterly Weekly in January of this year. The subscription-only report, of which Mayfield's campaign only released portions to Nooga.com, looks at 100 votes that the president took a position on in 2011 and cites Fleischmann for voting with him 24 times.
The report makes no mention of the 945 total votes that were cast in 2011—of which Fleischmann voted with Republicans 97 percent of the time. Fleischmann's campaign was quick to point out the fact in a response to the commercial Wednesday, communicating that the tally included a unanimous congressional vote to repeal a 3 percent withholding tax; two measures to extend the Patriot Act; and the support of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Jordan Powell, campaign manager for the Fleischmann campaign, said the commercial was indicative of "a desperate campaign that knows they're behind" and added that the congressman was questioning the legality of aspects of Mayfield's ad. Powell suggested that Mayfield's campaign intentionally made sure language at the commercial's close was indecipherable and lacked a picture—despite the candidate's voice and person being featured at the close.
The congressman's campaign issued a cease-and-desist demand regarding the ad Wednesday.
"We're challenging that they didn't follow those two particular rules," Powell said. "There are many laws and rules involved with how political TV ads are produced."
Mayfield's campaign responded to Fleischmann's efforts to have the ad removed by posting a three-page letter defending the ad to his website. The campaign also referenced an ad run by Fleischmann in 2010, which became the focus of a lawsuit between the congressman, his Chief of Staff Chip Saltsman and an aide for Robin Smith—Fleischmann's most formidable opponent in 2010.
Depositions released last month revealed Fleischmann never saw a 2010 ad his campaign ran attacking Smith before it aired, despite having "approved" it in a federally mandated sign-off. The interviews also showed that the Fleischmann campaign used the Tennessee state seal to make a nongovernment document appear official.
Refusing to discuss the past, Fleischmann's campaign began airing a variation of a recent commercial featuring former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, in which the Fox News host vaguely defends the congressman to viewers.
"The negative attacks, they're not true," Huckabee says. "Reject the negative attacks. Send Chuck to Congress."
Fleischmann's response to Mayfield was not the only advertisement triggered by the regional dairy mogul's attack on the congressman. In an independent buy, a super PAC called Citizens for a Working America began airing an ad highlighting comments made by the candidate that were captured on camera three months ago.
"Scottie Mayfield sure is good at ice cream, mmm-mmm," the commercial's narrator says, as ice cream truck music jingles in the background. "But on issues? Mayfield got caught admitting he doesn't even know what he wants to accomplish in Washington."
On cue, video of the first-time candidate struggling to answer questions to a group of University of Tennessee law school students begins to play as an ice cream cone begins to melt on the side of the screen. The video, which was anonymously uploaded to YouTube in April, was denied to be linked to Weston Wamp's campaign for the 3rd District seat—despite Wamp's sister having been present at the meeting in which Mayfield spoke.
Both campaigns for Wamp and Fleischmann denied having any involvement with the ad—which Tommy Hopper said Mayfield's campaign anticipated.
"The knowledge that a negative attack ad from an allegedly independent source was in the works for today, we felt we needed to be proactive with the truth," Hopper said, referring to Mayfield's ad. "That's what we've done."
Despite not being targeted in any of the latest commercials, Wamp, the son of former 3rd District Rep. Zach Wamp, dismissed the negative advertising tactics of Mayfield and the super PAC as representing the "status quo" and said he would continue to run a campaign with a positive, alternative approach.
"We're going to run positive, straight ahead, and work hard like we have," Wamp said. "The tone of our media is different than theirs … Their negative advertising just proves what I've been saying all along, that they represent the status quo in American politics. These are just the same old dirty tricks that politicians use and abuse."
Along with Mayfield and Wamp, Ron Bhalla is waging a challenge against Fleischmann as a Republican. Dr. Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are running as Democrats.
Primaries are Aug. 2.