Original Text of Daily Herald Article posted online 7/23/2018 and in print 7/24/2018 with the title "Outside group tries to influence County Mayor's race"

Posted: July 24, 2018

By: Staff

Written By: James Bennett jbennett@c-dh.net

www.columbiadailyherald.com

Amanda Kelton was campaigning outside of the Maury County Election Commission office during early voting last week when a driver pulled up and handed her a campaign flyer.

“Is this you?” the woman asked, explaining she received it in the mail.

The advertisement was headlined, “Amanda Kelton Shares OUR VALUES.”

“Yes, it is me,” Kelton said, “except I didn’t send it out.”

Kelton, a Democrat who is running for county mayor as an independent, thought for a moment that her campaign was being hijacked. A political action committee called Great America Coalition, a conservative group, apparently sent mailings to Democratic voters in Maury County, attempting to influence the election in favor of Republican nominee Andy Ogles.

“The mailer consists mainly of material taken from my website and other public statements,” Kelton said. “It is positive, entirely factual, and is something that my campaign might have put out ourselves if we had had the funds. Since my campaign had never received outside support like this before, I was very surprised.”

Kelton, who said she’s raised only $2,000 for her outsider candidacy, thought it might be support from veterans. Kelton served in the military before going to work at Chick-fil-A.

“I was confused and concerned when an internet search for that organization returned results for “Great America PAC,” “Great America Alliance” and “Great America Committee” — all of which have strong ties to the GOP and various right-wing organizations,” she said.

Kelton and her husband, Chris, continued digging and found a nonprofit that was involved with “Coalition for American Veterans PAC” and other Tennessee political organizations.

“Based on this, we felt reassured that this was a legitimate case of an organization independently promoting a candidate they favored and got back to working hard during early voting,” Kelton said.

If the political action committee was working on Kelton’s behalf, it was not with her encouragement. She has only accepted donations from individuals, she said.

“I had nothing to do with the release of these mailers, but I had no way to prevent them, either,” Kelton said. “I can, and do, condemn anonymous outside spending — including these mailers — but I do not condemn the message they contain or the people who sent them out if they did so in an honest (and legal) attempt to help my campaign.

“Should anyone come up with definite proof that their purpose was nefarious, I will condemn that act of bad faith as well. But once again, these messages were positive and truthful endorsements of me and my campaign.”

The mailer, intended to change a few minds, came late in the election cycle. Early voting ends Friday. Election Day is Aug. 2.

As of Monday morning, 5,500 people had voted. More than 10,000 were expected to participate in early voting by Friday. Based on early trends, it appears 70 percent of voters will be Republicans. The other 30 percent will ask for Democratic primary ballots.

If a total of 20,000 of Maury County’s 55,000 registered voters show up, 14,000 of those ballots will be for Republicans with another 6,000 coming from Democrats, based on that 70-30 split.

So what does the breakdown have to do with the Kelton mailer?

I suspect a Republican-leaning political action committee, attempting to elect GOP nominee Ogles, thought it would be doing him a favor by peeling away Democratic votes from incumbent Charlie Norman or challenger Sonny Shackelford to Kelton.

With the anger directed at President Donald Trump by Democrats, few will embrace Ogles’ campaign. Ogles is a former state director for the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was the local Democratic Party, getting involved and sending out a mailer for Amanda Kelton,” Norman said. “I looked up ‘Great America Coalition’ on the internet and saw Donald Trump’s picture on there. I came to the conclusion that this organization is trying to affect a local race as we’re 10 days from the general election. It kinds of bothers me a little bit.

“If it went out to Democratic voters, I think I have a great relationship with Republican, Democratic and independent voters. I look at it as a way to try and hurt me. I had to get into the ditch, as an election is going on, but this obviously is an outside influence coming into the campaign.”

With the support of state Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, Ogles has impressed Republicans with his conservative ideas and background as a economist. If he receives a majority of Republican votes — say 40 percent to Norman’s 30 percent and Shackelford’s 30 percent, Ogles would need Democrats to split their votes between Norman, Shackelford and Kelton in order to win.

Norman was elected county mayor in 2014 as a Republican. He refused to participate in the local GOP nominating convention and chose to run as an independent. Shackelford, a former Maury County Commission chairman, also is a Republican who challenged Norman as an independent and bypassed the convention.

The convention was organized by former local GOP chairman Scott Cepicky, a candidate for state representative who was beaten by Norman in the 2014 Republican primary for county mayor.

“I wanted nothing to do with a nominating convention,” Norman said. “That was a set up from the beginning to undermine me. If there had been a primary, I would have run in a Republican primary.”

Norman and Shackelford have strong support among rank-and-file Republicans, from what I can tell, despite the party’s endorsement of Ogles. Shackelford has raised $58,000 in campaign contributions, the most of any local candidate in any county race.

Using my guesstimate, out of the 14,000 Republicans, Ogles would have 5,600 votes if he wins 40 percent support. Norman and Shackelford would have 4,200 each if they earned 30 percent of the GOP vote.

Ogles’ 1,400-vote lead, under my scenario, would evaporate with 6,000 Democrats weighing in. I am guessing of those 6,000 votes, at least half, or 3,000, would go to Norman, who has sought Democratic support. Shackelford, Kelton and Ogles — in that order — will split the other 3,000.

I am guessing the big-money political experts at the Great America Coalition figured that out, too, and tried to influence the outcome. The more votes they sway for Kelton, the fewer that go to Norman or Shackelford and allow Ogles to squeeze out the victory.

This election, in my opinion, will be that close unless I am reading the mood of local Republicans incorrectly and they go overwhelmingly for Ogles purely because he’s the nominee. New GOP voters in Spring Hill, for example, will see the “R” next to Ogles’ name and assume he’s the best choice.

“I’m not sure what the motivation would be for the mailer would be,” Ogles said. “I am a little jealous no one has done it for me. At the same token, this is for a county mayor’s race not a state race.”

I asked Ogles if his former employers, the Koch brothers, might be interested in helping him out.

“They are not interested in a local race,” Ogles said. “I appreciate my former employers, but no. I have not worked for them in a couple of years now.”

Ogles said Kelton has been campaigning every day during early voting and has earned support. One mailer, targeted at Democrats, will not change the mind of voters, he added.

“If I were going to do extra mail I would do it for me,” Ogles said. “I did three mail pieces early, then had to cut one for budgetary reasons. Now we’re finishing with a couple of mail pieces. If anyone did anything for me, I would prefer to have a big Andy Ogles logo on it.”

Ogles said his own campaign will benefit from historically high Republican turnout for the governor’s race between Congresswoman Diane Black, businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee and state House Speaker Beth Harwell.

“I am cautiously optimistic about where we stand,” Ogles said. “We have knocked on about 16,000 doors. If I win, I will look back and say it’s because of the voter contact we have had.”

Shackelford said he had not heard of the outside group, sending out a mailer. He pointed out the state Republican Party sent two out on Ogles’ behalf.

“We have a groundswell of support for our candidacy,” Shackelford said. “I find it odd that the state Republican Party would attempt to influence a local race. It does not matter which party you’re in for a county election. If elected, you represent every household, not just Republicans.

“I think my track record of serving on the commission and as a local business person will continue to attract voters to our campaign,” he added. “I know Maury County. I am not new to Maury County.”

Maury County Democratic Party Chairman Seth James Campbell said the Great America Coalition was “nothing more than dark political money” being funneled in to Maury County to influence the election.

“This dirty money is being sent in to our county in hopes of splitting the vote so the Republican nominee, Andy Ogles, can win the race,” Campbell said. “The Great American Coalition is run by national Republican forces that want to take over our county. Amanda Kelton is an unfortunate pawn in this political game. They sent these mailers without her knowledge. They used pictures of her and her family without her knowledge. This is dirty politics and we should all denounce this practice.”

The local Democratic Party did not endorse or nominate candidates for county offices and denounced partisan local elections, Campbell said.

“Both Mayor Charlie Norman and Commissioner Sonny Shackelford are running great campaigns without the help of dark PAC money,” Campbell said. “I urge all Maury County voters to select one of these quality candidates.”

Meanwhile, Kelton said she will take whatever support she can get. The other three candidates have raised more than $20,000 each, she pointed out.

“My campaign has suffered from a lack of advertising funds,” Kelton said. “During the run-up to early voting, my opponents have been putting up a crazy number of signs, and they have been running radio and print ads non-stop. Our relatively small, grassroots campaign has had to rely on word of mouth and the endless hard work of dedicated volunteers to get out the message one voter at a time.

“Some folks would like you to believe that this mailer gives me some sort of unfair advantage. But if anything, it only serves to level the playing field a little — making money a little less of a factor in this campaign. Isn’t that a good thing? If seeing a simple mailer that says positive and factual things about me sways someone’s vote, then good! I am glad that my message is getting out to more people. It is a good message. I am a good candidate, and people should vote for me.”

Fair use note: The proceeding article is copyrighted material owned by the Columbia Daily Herald or its parent company GateHouse Media, LLC. The article was heavily edited on 7/24/2018 without a public record of the changes made. We are therefore making the original text available here for public benefit as is considered fair use.

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