By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Reagan Day fundraisers have been a staple of GOP politics ever since the Great Communicator made a point of promoting the 11th Commandment — thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But in the conservative suburbs east of Nashville, the event has become too poisonous to be held this year.
According to party emails obtained by The Associated Press, three leading Tennessee Republicans refused to speak at the June fundraiser if their rivals were given the same opportunity, forcing the Wilson County Republicans to call off the event altogether.
The flap suggests just how fractured the GOP has become this election year, as Donald Trump and tea party supporters continue shaking up what’s left of the Republican establishment. It also suggests what hardball tactics may come in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in 2018.
The head of the county party has no comment on why the party canceled the event. But a flurry of correspondence obtained by the AP suggests that organizers couldn’t get the three candidates to share a stage.
The event was to be held on June 7 in the district of U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who faces a tea-party rival, former state Rep. Joe Carr, in Tennessee’s congressional primary this August. Black also is a top contender for governor, and will likely face state Sen. Mark Green, an Army veteran who has been speaking at other Reagan Day events around the state.
According to an emailed summary prepared by Wilson County GOP Chairman Tom Hoffman for fellow party organizers, Green refused to appear if Black was allowed to speak, and Carr then said he wouldn’t speak either if Green didn’t take the stage.
The event was being put together by Justin Hayes, a Carr spokesman and co-chairman of the Wilson County for Donald Trump campaign committee.
According Hoffman’s message, Hayes suggested that the event feature Carr and Green — and no one else. The state GOP then intervened saying that party rules require all candidates to be allowed to address the crowd to avoid the appearance of taking sides in a race, meaning that Black could not be have been excluded if Carr was speaking.
Executive committee member Jennifer Winfree wanted organizers to confirm Green’s refusal, calling it “troubling and baffling that a well-respected doctor and seated senator would be this obstinate.”
Hoffman responded that he hadn’t spoken to Green directly, but that Hayes “verbally represented” Green’s position to him and others. The party then voted to cancel the event.
Hayes declined to comment to the AP, but the Carr campaign later called for a debate between Carr and Black.
Black, for her part, tweeted her regrets after the event was canceled, saying she had been eager to hear from the “tough guy” Green.
In an AP interview, Green denied that he had refused to appear alongside Black or anyone else.
“I don’t know who’s saying that I didn’t want to be on stage with her, but that’s just ludicrous,” he said. “I relish the opportunity to speak with a person that I might be contending against in the future.”
“She has every right to be on stage, and I would never suggest otherwise,” he said. “It would be such a high-schoolish thing to do.”
Former radio talk show host Steve Gill, who helped Carr publicize his campaign launch in April, had agreed to host the fundraiser. He said he was told Black was to blame for the cancellation.
“It seems to me the elbows are coming out early,” Gill said, and that’s OK with him. “You cannot be tepid and timid.”
“If Donald Trump teaches us nothing it is that in this climate right now, you’ve got to play in bold strokes, you can’t paint in pastel. Anybody who isn’t playing bold now is losing out,” he said.