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Times Free Press file photos / Todd Gardenhire, left, and Glenn Scruggs are shown in this composite photo.

NASHVILLE — State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, returned a $3,200 contribution made by Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager's political action committee earlier this month, days after GOP officials launched a direct-mail broadside against Gardenhire's Democratic challenger, Glenn Scruggs, in next week's election.

"No comment," Gardenhire said Tuesday when asked whether his action to return the money was directly linked to the attack mailer, which was sent by the Tennessee Republican Party with state Senate Republican Caucus funding.

Gardenhire has previously said he plans on running a positive campaign, although he has criticized the Chattanooga Police Department in recent days for what he says is a lack of African American officers — a dig at Scruggs, who is a Black man and the assistant chief of police.

Efforts to reach Yager by phone and text were unsuccessful.

Several astonished Republicans told the Times Free Press that Gardenhire, who is white and has largely sought to steer clear of harshly criticizing Scuggs, blew up when the state GOP mailer hit Senate District 10. The seat, formerly held by now-Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat, includes portions of Hamilton and Bradley counties.

The mailer slammed Scruggs, charging that Scruggs "pledges allegiance to liberals" and "radicals," including Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. The mailer said Harris backs legislation to "outlaw all private health insurance plans" while giving "the right to vote to convicted terrorists and rapists while they are still in prison."

Yager made the contribution from his KEYPAC to Gardenhire on Oct. 5, according to the political action committee's disclosure filed Tuesday with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance records show. Three days later on Oct. 8, filings show, Gardenhire's campaign gave $3,200 to Yager's KEYPAC with Yager's PAC recording it as a contribution.

Scruggs and other Democrats, meanwhile, have criticized Gardenhire's statements in a television interview explaining his legislation to help address the lack of healthy eating options in low-income areas. Gardenhire said many "inner city" residents "get them some fried chicken on the way home" from convenience stores "and have dinner on that."

District 10 is one of two seats that Tennessee Democrats are seeking to win in a GOP-dominated Senate where Republicans now hold 28 of the 33 seats.

The other fiercely fought contest is Senate District 20 in Nashville where incumbent Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Republican, faces a strong challenge from Democrat Heidi Campbell, a former Oak Hill mayor.

The Tennessee Journal reported Tuesday that a television attack ad funded by a PAC belonging to Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, slammed Campbell while using Republican President Donald Trump as a club.

"Are you tired of rude politicians who don't treat others with respect?" a narrator says as images of Democrats U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi well as Trump flash on the screen.

The ad shifts to then-Oak Hill Mayor Campbell raising her voice at a person during a Board of Commissioners meeting, threatening to have the person removed, The Journal reported. There was no context offered.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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