NASHVILLE — An independent group has plunked down $46,000 for a TV ad praising Democratic 10th Senate District candidate Khristy Wilkinson's support for Insure Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's failed plan to provide health insurance for low-income Tennesseans including military veterans.
Paid for by the little-known Washington, Iowa-based Heartland Accountability Project, the 30-second spot began airing over the weekend on WDEF, WETV, WRCB and WTVC.
The ad never mentions the Nov. 8 election or that Wilkinson is running for office. It doesn't urge voters to cast ballots for her or refer to her opponent, incumbent Republican Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga.
But it does boost her name identification. And it represents the first real sign that state Democrats, or someone, is now playing seriously in the District 10 contest, seen earlier in the year as one of just two possible Democratic pickups in a Senate with a 28-5 Republican majority.
In the Aug. 4 primary election, Democrats' expectations were upended when Khristy Wilkinson, a former UT-Chattanooga adjunct professor, Democratic activist and Bernie Sanders supporter, unexpectedly beat Nick Wilkinson, a top aide to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. The two Wilkinsons are not related.
Gardenhire has outspent Wilkinson in the general election and has aired local TV ads promoting his support of some $100 million for public school teachers. He's spent about $56,000 on those ads and is expected to spend another $10,000 on a cable ad buy.
The new ad focuses solely on Wilkinson's support for Insure Tennessee, the plan Haslam put forward in 2015 in the GOP-dominated General Assembly.
Haslam wanted to use federal Affordable Care Act funds to cover an estimated 300,000 Tennesseans under the state's Medicaid program, known as TennCare. More than 20,000 of those are said to be military veterans.
But Senate Republicans, including Gardenhire, killed it twice in committee, so it never got a floor vote in the House or Senate.
The new ad begins by showing men and women in military dress uniforms, then shifts to a smiling man in a standard Army uniform flanked by two children as a male announcer says, "They stood up for us. We should be there for them."
"Khristy Wilkinson took a stand to get veterans health benefits they earned," the ad continues. "At least 24,000 Tennessee veterans and their families are not covered.
"Many politicians didn't take a stand," the announcer says over a shot of Wilkinson visiting a family and shaking a man's hand. "But Khristy Wilkinson is on the record for Gov. Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan that helps veterans. This will also help create 15,000 jobs. Call Khristy. Thank her for standing up for veterans."
Gardenhire came in for a firestorm of criticism after state records showed he was on the state-sponsored insurance plan while voting against coverage for the state's poor. A videotape caught the senator using a crude label against an East Ridge man who harangued him over what he called Gardenhire's hypocrisy.
Gardenhire has said he opposed Insure Tennessee because he was left with too many unanswered questions and he feared it would prove financially ruinous.
The identification of the little-known Heartland Accountability Project as being behind the ad is based on public filings with the Federal Communications Commission and interviews with station executives.
Under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, independent expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited sums from corporations, unions, associations and individuals to advocate for or against political candidates.
They don't have to name their donors, but they may not donate money to or coordinate with candidates or their political campaigns.
Last year, Heartland paid for a radio ad attacking state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, over a bill requiring Haslam to get legislative approval before presenting a proposed Medicaid expansion plan to the feds.
Records show the group was incorporated on March 14, 2014, by a Washington-based law firm. Efforts to reach Curtis Faul, listed as Heartland's director on incorporation papers, were unsuccessful.
Wilkinson said Sunday she wasn't aware of the ad until a Times Free Press reporter sent her a copy of it.
"I'm excited about it," she said. "I think it's really great. I really appreciate the help and name recognition."
Wilkinson said she has had no contact with Heartland and supposes the footage of her in the ad was borrowed from Facebook posts about a July event honoring five U.S. servicemen attacked and killed in Chattanooga last year. Another image shows her engaging a family while campaigning door to door.
She noted she's seen other support in the form of direct mail sent by the Tennessee Education Association's PAC and Planned Parenthood.
"I think all of that really helps our campaign, especially since we're being outspent by 10-to-1," Wilkinson said.
Efforts to contact Gardenhire on Sunday were unsuccessful.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.