NASHVILLE — As Gov. Bill Haslam contemplates running for the U.S. Senate to replace his longtime friend Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Democrats and his own party's right wing are warning him to stay out.
State Democrats charged Friday that the governor's unreleased stake in the Haslam family owned Pilot Flying J company, as well as the company's federal fraud woes, will be an issue.
That follows Thursday's hit from the hard-right Breitbart News, helmed once again by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who had been searching for a Republican opponent for Corker before the senator's announcement he would retire after wrapping up his term in early 2019.
Breitbart's slam was over Haslam's response to comments made by the governor's older brother and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam in defending his players from President Donald Trump's criticism of NFL players kneeling in protest for the national anthem at games.
"The consensus I hear around me is, players have a right to express their opinions," Haslam told The Tennessean. "And fans have a right to decide whether or not they're going to continue to go to games. It's part of living in a free society and also an economy that's based on capitalism, where consumers get to choose."
On Friday, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini joined in, saying Pilot Flying J, the nation's largest truck stop company, "has been embroiled in a fraud scandal since 2013 that has resulted in 10 indictments and $170 million in fines.
"To this day, Gov. Haslam has not had to answer for these crimes, but he has likely profited from them as he still holds an undisclosed stake in the company," Mancini said in her statement. "Nobody knows how much he owns or has profited because his very first executive order eliminated requirements for the governor and top aides to disclose how much they earn in outside income."
Mancini warned that if Haslam decides to run for the Senate, "we expect there will be considerably more scrutiny of his finances and his family's business practices."
Haslam told reporters Thursday that he is thinking and praying about running for the Senate after this week's announcement by incumbent Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, that he won't seek a third term.
The governor told reporters earlier this week he recognizes he's looking at a fight if he runs, but noted that's nothing new.
"One of the advantages of having run several times and having been in office for a while is that you get a little bit more used to being shot at than you were initially," he said.
His office had no comment Friday on the Democratic and Breitbart attacks.
The governor's brother, Jimmy Haslam, is CEO of Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J. Haslam was president of the privately held firm until he left in 2003 to run successfully for Knoxville mayor.
Fourteen ex-Pilot employees have pleaded guilty in the 4 1/2 years since the alleged defrauding of trucking companies erupted into public view when FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided the company's Knoxville headquarters in 2013.
Federal indictments accuse company officials of conspiring to withhold millions of dollars in negotiated rebates with trucking companies by providing the firms with fraudulent statements.
Neither the governor nor his brother, Jimmy Haslam, have been charged, and both say they knew nothing of the fraud.
The trial of four remaining Pilot Flying J defendants is scheduled to begin Oct. 31 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
During his first 2010 campaign, Haslam departed from a long-standing Tennessee tradition and declined to provide copies of his income tax returns to news organizations. Forbes has estimated his net worth at $2 billion, much of it deriving from the privately held Pilot Flying J.
Upon taking office in January 2011, Haslam's first executive order was to reverse a previous order from former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat and multi-millionaire himself, that required the governor and top aides to disclose how much they earn in outside income.
A national conservative group known to spend millions of dollars in Republican elections, meanwhile, launched its own broadside against the governor.
Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs with Club for Growth, called it "no surprise" both Corker and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are encouraging a Haslam run.
"They're all cut from the same cloth with the Republican establishment in their DNA," Roth said in a statement. "Haslam is the very definition of an establishment candidate who will fall in line with Mitch McConnell."
Roth said "any governor that supports Medicaid expansion is not going to be a candidate that will be well-received in a GOP primary."
After winning reelection in 2014, Haslam pushed a Medicaid expansion proposal called Insure Tennessee in the General Assembly, controlled by fellow Republicans. GOP lawmakers refused to approve the additional coverage for some 280,000 low-income Tennesseans that was allowable with federal funds under the federal Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.
Besides Haslam, any number of Republicans are eyeing running in the 2018 Senate primary. The list includes U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher. The former head of the Tennessee chapter of the billionaire Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, Andy Ogles, declared his candidacy before Corker's announcement.
Other Republicans eyeing the contest include state Sen. Mark Green and former state Rep. Joe Carr, who challenged Alexander in the 2014 GOP primary and did much better than expected.
Democrat James Mackler, an attorney and decorated Iraq war veteran, is a declared candidate.
Since Corker announced he wouldn't run, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, state Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, both of Nashville, are giving the contest a hard look.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.