Tennesseans know the old truism: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
The universal meaning is simple: Be careful of the company you keep.
Ask Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
Since March, she has been reading more and more headlines and stories that link her longtime friend and former campaign president, attorney G. Kline Preston IV, to the NRA/Maria Butina Russian money and election meddling questions.
The Tennessean has reported that in addition to representing Blackburn on campaign finance questions, Preston has claimed Alexander Torshin as a Russian client and longtime friend. Torshin is the prominent Russian politician with close ties to President Vladimir Putin who is now under scrutiny for illegally channeling Russian funds through the National Rifle Association in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to the Tennessean, Preston first introduced Torshin to then-president of the NRA David Keene in 2011, and the pair attended the NRA's annual convention in Nashville in 2015.
Blackburn, a U.S. House of Representatives member since 2002 and now a Tennessee Senate candidate seeking Bob Corker's open seat, is a longtime NRA supporter and recipient of at least $34,700 in NRA donations, according to opensecrets.com, which tracks campaign donations. According to the Washington Post, Blackburn received the most NRA money since 2002 of any Tennessee Congress member. As in most campaign finance snapshots, that total listed for her includes only donations, not any possible expenditures by the NRA to oppose her challengers.
But by widening the lens, the NRA money picture gets a bit darker. The NRA spent $30 million on Trump's campaign in 2016 and another $40 million in various efforts to lobby and help elect Republicans, according to a recent New Republic report.
Now the arrest of Maria Butina, an alleged Russia spy who is said to have infiltrated the National Rifle Association, has turned up the heat on the NRA, Preston and Blackburn. Butina's indictment charging her with conspiring to influence American politics means further scrutiny into the NRA and its money trail. Although that investigation seems now primarily to be focused on the 2016 presidential election, the probe's fallout already is complicating the campaigns of Trump-clinging Republicans such as Blackburn, who also took NRA money and continues to court the NRA's support.
A spokeswoman for Blackburn in March declined to answer specific Tennessean questions about Preston's work for the campaign or his relationship with Blackburn or her family members. The Tennessean, however, quoted a very general statement from the campaign: "Congressman Blackburn believes Russia is not our friend — and thinks we need to treat Russia like any bully: we need to be strong enough to prevent them from pushing the United States and our allies around, and we need to draw firm lines and show them that America is not to be trifled with."
After Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a Chattanooga fundraiser for Blackburn last weekend, the Tennessee Democratic Party raised new questions, as reported by WRCB:
"Going back to her 2007 meeting with Russian diplomat Igor Matveev, Marsha Blackburn has a more than decade-long history of meeting with Russian nationals on Tennessee soil. In 2012, she met with accused spy master Alexander Torshin when he visited Williamson County — her home county — as an election observer, squired by her former campaign president, attorney, and friend G. Kline Preston IV. Blackburn's actions speak much louder than her words," said Democratic Party spokesman Mark Brown.
Blackburn spokeswoman Abbi Sigler responded to WRCB: "Marsha never had a meeting with the second individual," according to WRCB.
On Monday, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, who avidly opposes Donald Trump, quoted from the Tennessean story and wrote that "Republicans who were chummy with Russia-connected figures" are about to become an issue in Tennessee's U.S. Senate race.
"Blackburn spent last week furiously trying to distance herself from Trump's Helsinki comments," Rubin wrote. "But if the issue comes down to who will hold Trump accountable on Russia and take oversight of Russia's far-flung influence racket seriously, Blackburn will find herself playing defense."
Rubin noted that recurrent mass shootings and NRA rants have reminded Americans that the organization "has become a refuge for conspiracy theories and far-right extremism. Now the Russia story and the Butina indictment raise the question of why the GOP is in bed with a group the Russians allegedly used to meddle with our elections — and whether money Republicans took is tainted by the NRA's Russia connection."
Blackburn's campaign did not respond Friday to a Times editorial page editor's request for a more timely and specific comment. However, on Sunday, the campaign sent us the same statement we noted here earlier — the one she gave to the Tennessean last March.