Dairy executive Scottie Mayfield hired an experienced political consultant and started a campaign Facebook page in recent days, signaling early signs of life in his congressional bid.
On Tuesday, Mayfield said he hired Tommy Hopper, of Jackson, Tenn., a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman who counts Gov. Don Sundquist and President George H.W. Bush among his list of past consulting clients.
"He knows more about this than I do," said Mayfield, who on Friday announced he would challenge U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.
Reached by phone, Hopper confirmed his employment with Mayfield but declined further comment.
According to its website, The Hopper Group specializes in advertising, polling, research, fundraising and social media.
Robin Smith, a top rival to Fleischmann in 2010 who hasn't endorsed or affiliated with any campaign this year, said Hopper is "extraordinarily familiar" with Tennessee's political scene.
"It kind of puts others on notice that [Mayfield] knows how to play the game in all aspects," said Smith, a former GOP state chairwoman. "Tommy Hopper knows how to play hardball."
Smith and others said "hardball" -- opposition research, negative advertising and other dark arts of the campaign trail -- could be essential for the easygoing Mayfield, president of Mayfield Dairy.
Chip Saltsman, Fleischmann's chief of staff who ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, is known as a hard-nosed consultant, and in 2011 he was sued by a former Smith aide for defamation and slander. The suit still is in litigation in Davidson County Circuit Court.
News that Mayfield had retained Hopper traveled quickly through Nashville's Legislative Plaza, where Hopper and Saltsman are well-known.
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, said "don't underestimate Tommy's ability," and with Saltsman running Fleischmann's campaign, "it'll be a duel of the titans."
House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who has tangled with both operatives over the years, was highly amused.
"That should be a very interesting race," Naifeh said. "I know both of them. I think both are capable young men and it should be a very interesting race to see what develops between the two and their mudslinging tactics."
Saltsman declined to comment.
Mayfield, 61, never has run for office, but Hopper shepherded a similarly green client in 2010. With no prior political experience and Hopper's help, Stephen Fincher, a farmer from Frog Jump, Tenn., defeated longtime state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, becoming the first Republican to win Tennessee's 8th Congressional District since 1973.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Mayfield's hiring of Hopper showed a willingness "to take the gloves off and run a media campaign."
Mayfield's new Facebook page employs Mayfield Dairy's brown, yellow and white color scheme and emphasizes the candidate's "40 years of experience in business." But the page lacks any semblance of a political platform besides his party -- Republican.
When he announced his bid for Congress last week, Athens resident Mayfield said he would elaborate his policy views this week, but on Tuesday he said he wouldn't release a platform until he purchases office space in Chattanooga.
That's unlikely to occur this week, he said, again declining to say exactly why he's running.
"Right now, we're just trying to get started," Mayfield said. "The election's in August, so folks are going to have plenty of time to know what I stand for."
Ron Bhalla, Jean Howard-Hill and Weston Wamp also are running for the GOP nomination in the 3rd Congressional District.
Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are competing for the Democratic nomination.
The primary election is Aug. 2.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...