Haslam defends supporters targeting legislators, denies involvement

Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he had nothing to do with picking who his key supporters would target in this year’s Republican primaries, although he stopped short of denying any involvement with the group.

Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, called the governor a “traitor” this week in light of revelations a group of the governor’s key supporters teamed up to contribute thousands of dollars to unseat Republican legislators who butt heads with the governor.

Asked whether he denies Womick’s assertion that the governor had a direct hand in targeting lawmakers, Haslam said, “Again, I have folks who have supported us who are concerned about who gets elected to the legislature, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Haslam said, “I didn’t select one opponent, I can assure you that.” He added he didn’t encourage anyone to run against targeted legislators.

“As you know, contests get very personal. And so you start to hear lots of conversation back and forth about who’s doing this or that, and you know, it’s not always accurate,” he said.

Womick penned a letter earlier this month calling out what he called the administration’s “treasonous targeting, in this month’s primary.”

A political action committee by the name of Advance Tennessee PAC targeted five sitting Republican legislators or aided their opponents in the August GOP primary election. The PAC’s organizers and donors includes supporters of Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell. The group hired a direct mail firm that has Bryan Kaegi, a fundraiser for the two high-ranking Republicans, as one of its principals. Contributors included board members of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, SCORE, which aligns closely with the governor’s education agenda.

The group, created the month before the election, spent nearly $140,000 on efforts to unseat Tea Party Republicans, according to campaign finance reports. Key targets included Sen. Stacey Campfield and Rep. Tony Shipley — who were both voted out of office — and Reps. Micah Van Huss, Courtney Rogers and Mike Sparks, who all won reelection.