KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A few hours before Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen are to meet tonight in their final U.S. Senate debate, Bredesen's campaign is releasing a new ad featuring a retired federal Drug Enforcement Agency investigator who criticizes U.S. Rep. Blackburn's role in a law blamed by some agency officials for helping fuel the nation's opioid crisis.
The 30-second spot features Jim Geldorf, a retired career DEA employee who participated in an investigation last year by 60 Minutes and The Washington Post into the painkiller crisis.
"I was with DEA for 43-and-a-half years," Geldorf says in the new ad. "We were trying to address the problem of the opioid crisis. We were cracking down on drug companies, and they pushed back hard with the pharmaceutical lobbying groups."
Geldorf goes on to say Blackburn, who has spent 16 years in the House, "has taken over $800,000 from the pharmaceutical industry. Congresswoman Blackburn introduced legislation in the middle of this crisis that's going to make it more difficult for DEA to do their job. The industry got exactly what they wanted."
Bredesen's campaign says the ad will begin running this afternoon on digital platforms.
The announcement comes as both candidates prepare to step on stage at 8 p.m. for the hourlong debate put on by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Nexstar Media Group, which has five television affiliates across the state.
The Bredesen attack on Blackburn deals with a 2016 law that raised legal standards on the DEA's then-ability to stop company shipments of the prescription drugs when the agency suspected the addictive painkillers would end up on the black market.
Blackburn was one of 14 co-sponsors of the legislation and spoke in favor of it before its 2016 passage, saying it would benefit people with severe pain problems who needed the pills for relief.
After the investigative report, Blackburn defended the law and questioned criticism.
However, she also said that "if there are unintended consequences from this bipartisan legislation — which was passed unanimously by the House, Senate and was signed into law by President Obama — they should be addressed immediately."
Blackburn is supportive of a Senate-passed bill sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. It beefs up federal support of programs to treat addiction. It also bolsters monitoring of prescriptions while updating information on alternative treatments to addictive drugs.
But Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brown has charged the bill "does nothing to fix a fundamental problem: Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn's defanging of the Drug Enforcement Administration."
Republicans' Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, last week attacked Bredesen, a mult-millionaire, with an ad for having up to $1 million in holdings in Johnson & Johnson while also charging he ignored Tennessee's growing opioid problems as governor from 2003 to 2011.
The group says Tennessee's rate of opioid-related overdose deaths doubled, citing the National Institute on Drug Abuse. When Bredesen left office, the state had an opioid-related overdose death rate of 10 deaths per 100,000 people.
Well after he had left office, the death rate had increased by 2016 to 18.1 deaths per 100,000 people, The Tennessean newspaper has reported.
Bredesen spokeswoman Alyssa Hansen said "no amount of D.C. swamp politics can hide the fact that during her 16 years in Washington, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn has taken more than $800,000 from drug companies and in 2016 passed a law that federal drug enforcement agents said banned them from doing their job."
She said Blackburn's criticism of Bredesen for owning Johnson & Johnson stock "is the kind of muck that Tennesseans hate from DC — by that measure, anyone who buys baby shampoo and Band-Aids is somehow contributing to the opioid crisis."
In other pre-debate developments:
* Earlier in the day, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden renewed the GOP's current attacks on Bredesen, charging he "is refusing to own up to his own disastrous handling of sexual harassment allegations while governor," saying his administration shredded investigators' notes, among other things.
Bredesen has objected, saying that he took appropriate action after a top aide was accused in 2005 of sexual harassment. And his most recent ad has four of his former gubernatorial aides defending him — two call Blackburn a "liar" — as Blackburn and a national GOP group claim that while governor, Bredesen shielded male aides from sexual harassment allegations.
* The state GOP also posted video taken Tuesday by Republican-aligned America Rising PAC of both former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bredesen together outside Bloomberg's home, where he was headlining a fundraiser for Bredesen's bid.
"Bloomberg's support likely stems from Phil Bredesen's D rating from the NRA, (even after Phil claimed he was an 'avid sportsman' while falsely touting an A rating)," charged GOP spokesman Gillum Ferguson in an email.
* Tennessee Democrats' coordinated effort attacked Blackburn, charging the eight-term congressman's family "gets rich off her office," with spokesman Mark Brown citing what he called her "ethical shortcomings, including the fact that she accepted campaign contributions from the lobbying clients of her son-in-law, Paul Ketchel, while Ketchel was serving as her campaign treasurer."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.