While independent expenditures of out-of-state organizations may have achieved their goal in some state legislative races this summer, Frank Niceley says attacks by two Washington-based groups against him backfired and likely helped his state Senate campaign.
Direct mail attacks on Niceley by one group, the Humane Society Legislative Fund (HSLF), may also have run afoul of state law. And a post card from the NRA that accused him of lying, Niceley says, has transformed him from a friend of the gun owners group to an enemy.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said the HSLF political action committee failed to register with the state as required by the law. Dane Waters, a spokesman for the group, says attorneys advised the fund that registration with the Registry of Election Finance was not required.
The mailers attack Niceley for supporting legislation to allow slaughter of horses for food, for opposing legislation to make cockfighting a felony and for supporting “canned hunting” with legislation that would allow whitetail deer farms in Tennessee.
“Got horse?” asks one of the mail pieces in text beside a picture of a large cheeseburger bearing the label “100% horse burger.”
“Instead of fixing Tennessee’s economy, Frank Niceley is trying to make it easier for the French and Belgians to eat horses,” declares the mailer.
Niceley estimates the HSLF spent $50,000 on the mailings. Waters would not provide a figure in a telephone interview last week, but said a disclosure of the spending had been mailed to the Registry of Election Finance. Rawlins said it had not been received as of Friday.
Rawlins said state law requires that PACs register with the Registry before engaging in an independent expenditure campaign involving a campaign for the state Legislature “unless there’s something in federal law that trumps the state law … and I’m not aware of (such a federal provision).”
Waters said that, as a “501 C 4” nonprofit organization under federal law, attorneys advised that registration in the state was not necessary, though disclosure is required and will be provided. Since the spending occurred after July 23 — the deadline for the last filing of state reports — the report legally need not be filed until Oct. 10. Waters said HSLF is actually going beyond requirements of state law by sending its report earlier.
Niceley, now a state representative, won the Aug. 2 Republican primary in the six-county Senate District 8 with 7,020 votes, according to unofficial returns. Cynthia Bundren Jackson finished second with 5,430, followed by Jeffrey Brantley with 1,816 and Hobart Rice with 1,483.
Two of the HSLF mail pieces supported Brantley while attacking Niceley, presenting Union County Commissioner Brantley as an opponent of horse slaughter and “canned hunts” while supportive of stronger penalties for cockfighting.
“I think they (the HSLF mailings) helped me,” said Niceley. “Farmers and animal owners — people who live in the real world — know better than to believe this stuff. The Humane Society doesn’t live in the real world.”
Waters said he is “comfortable we did the right thing” in “educating voters” about Niceley’s position on animal rights issues, which stood out in a review of state legislative races around the nation.
“I think we were very effective in letting the constituents know how Frank Niceley acts,” he said. “We believe the margin was closer than it would have been if we had not participated in the election.”
The anti-Niceley mailings were the first independent expenditure by HSLF in Tennessee, Waters said, but may not be the last. There was an unprecedented surge in PAC independent expenditures involving state legislative races prior to the Aug. 2 primary by groups pushing various issues ranging from gun owner rights to changes in state education laws.
The biggest independent expenditure by a PAC reported so far in legislative campaigns was more than $100,000 spent by a group representing StudentsFirst, which bills itself as promoting education reform, in promoting Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who won his race. But the most publicized spending was by the NRA in opposing House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, who was defeated.
Niceley had a brush with the NRA as well. A postcard mailed to NRA members in the district says he lied about his NRA rating in campaign materials, listing himself with an “A+” when he had a “C.” Niceley notes he did have an “A+” until it was changed in late July.
Niceley, assured of election to the Senate because he has no opponent in November, says the NRA move was deceptive, unfair and probably helped him while hurting the NRA in an area where he is known as an ardent supporter of gun owner rights.
“I’ve had life members (of the NRA) call me up and say they were canceling their life membership because of this,” he said.
NRA representatives did not return a reporter’s call seeking comment.