A high ranking source who serves on the Republican Governors Association’s (RGA) select national finance committee told The Tennessee Star that current and former RGA staff appear to be actively trying to damage the gubernatorial campaigns of Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) and possibly Bill Lee, while promoting close Haslam ally Randy Boyd in the Republican primary.
Specifically, the source said, Haslam and the RGA Executive Director Paul Bennecke (who Haslam personally hired to the RGA during his previous stint as chairman) were coordinating with at least one White House staff member in an attempt to disparage and downplay Black’s close working relationship with President Trump and with Vice President Mike Pence.
Haslam was a vociferous “Never-Trumper” who just three weeks before Trump won the 2016 election demanded Trump resign as the nominee and in so doing became the only Republican governor who said he would not be voting for Trump. The governor was particularly incensed when during his recent rally for Marsha Blackburn in Nashville, Trump took time to give Black special attention. During that rally, Trump did not mention any candidates other than Blackburn and Black, singling her out and saying “I want to recognize Diane Black, who is running for Governor. Good luck, Diane.” This followed his mention of Bob Corker, who received loud boos when Trump mentioned his name.
Sources who attended that rally also reported Boyd campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, appeared to be furious at Trump’s praise for Black as well as the fact that Boyd was not invited to appear on stage, nor did Trump mention Boyd’s name.
The RGA official said that word has recently spread to several other governors regarding Haslam’s activity and that seemed to focus on Bernicke as well as Bennecke’s longtime business partner and political ally, Nick Ayres. Ayres preceded Bennecke as RGA executive director (also under Haslam’s previous term as chairman) and is now the chief of staff to Mike Pence. The blog Rocky Top Politics exposed these relationships back in 2016-2017. During the 2014 election Haslam secretly tried to defeat incumbent Republican members of the state legislature whom he considered too conservative or who opposed his attempts to pass Common Core and the expansion of Obamacare. It was revealed after the election that Haslam raised and spent several hundred thousand dollars in the legislative primaries. The political attack firm he paid to go after conservative Republicans was owned and run by Bennecke and Ayres.
Ayres came in for criticism by another long-time Washington insider who said the recent Politico.com story touting Ayres as a possible replacement for White House chief-of-staff Gen. John Kelly was suspected of having been leaked by Ayres himself to elevate his chances for the post. “Nick Ayres has the reputation of being a shameless self-promoter and this seems right in line with his history,” said the insider.