NASHVILLE - A fierce ideological civil war is playing out in some Tennessee Republican state legislative primary contests among tea party-style Republicans and traditional conservatives battle ahead of Thursday's election.
Money for independent expenditures poured in by super PACs on both sides reached more than $300,000.
"It's a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," declared Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, a hard-right lawmaker who has been slammed with nearly $30,000 in television ads and direct mail funded by Advance Tennessee, the newest political action committeee on the block.
Advance Tennessee was created in July and spent $137,275, attacking five incumbent tea party-affiliated Republicans, including Shipley, or backing their opponents, filings with the state Registry of Election Finance show.
Another group, the Tennessee Federation for Children, which backs school vouchers, spent nearly $149,500. About half of that went into attacking incumbent Rep. Dennis "Coach" Roach, R-Rutledge, or supporting Jerry Sexton, his GOP primary opponent.
Meanwhile, conservative millionaire investor Andrew Miller of Nashville is helping his favorites with his two PACs, Truth Matters and Tennesseans 4 Ethics in Government.
Truth Matters spent $39,800 from July 1 to July 28. That included $5,000 to conservative activist Tommy Crangle in his House District 27 contest with Patsy Hazlewood for the open seat being vacated by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.
The Tennesseans 4 Ethics group made $18,780 in independent expenditures, with $7,200 going for radio ads in support of Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Goodlettsville, and $11,840 for businessman Steve Gawrys in his attempt to take down Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin.
Advance Tennessee, meanwhile, spent $2,429 opposing Rogers and the same supporting her opponent, William Clayton Stout.
The PAC lists a Washington, D.C., address. Its treasurer is Caleb Crosby, who also is treasurer of Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC. The national group has been battling tea party candidates in federal races across the country.
Shipley said, "It is a nationwide effort of moderates, we call them RINOs (Republians in name only), to take on the conservatives."
Advance Tennessee's donors include supporters of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state House Speaker Beth Harwell. One of the principals in the PAC's direct mail firm, Persuasion Partner, is Bryan Kaegi, who has raised money for Haslam and Harwell.
Both leaders have had tea party representatives pushing them from the right in the last four years.
Advance Tennessee contributors include the billionaire Nashville businessmen brothers, John and Orrin Ingram, who each gave $10,000, as well Knoxville businessman James Clayton, founder of Clayton Homes, who gave $20,000.
Other contributors include Scott Niswonger, of Greeneville, the co-founder of LandAir Transport, who gave $10,000.
Orrin Ingram and Niswonger are board members of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), the pro-education reform group founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., according to SCORE's website. Clayton's son, current Clayton Homes CEO Kevin Clayton, is also a SCORE member.
SCORE has advocated for Common Core education standards and testing. This year, tea party House lawmakers and Democrats joined to force a one-year delay in the testing, much to Haslam's embarassment.
As he campaigns with token opposition this year, Haslam is airing ads touting rising student tests and other accomplishments and saying more is coming.
"You know," he says in the ad, "there are a lot of good people running. Think about who you elect because we have a lot more work to do. And whatever you do, vote. Vote for those who would keep moving Tennessee forward."
Asked Tuesday at a campaign stop about Advance Tennessee PAC's activities and donors' ties to him, Haslam said, "I can't speak for the PAC. The PAC's going to do what they're going to do.
"Again," the governor added, "there've been people [involved in Advance Tennessee] who've supported me in the past who really understand having a governor is great. But it really matters that we have a Legislature that's really going to make hard and good decisions going forward."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.