Unpacking Terry Nelson's Bag of Dirty Tricks

The Unsavory Resume of Jeb Bush's Political Operative

Written for FedUpNewYorkers.org

Whaddya need? Push polls? Race-baiting? Dirty tricks? Terry Nelson is your guy. He has been the political director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, a senior adviser to John McCain’s Straight Talk America Political Action Committee, director of political operations at the Republican National Committee (RNC) and consultant to countless corporate clients who need a smooth operator to handle their political affairs in Washington. Now, he is Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s go-to-guy.


Let’s take a look at a few highlights of Nelson’s career.

In 2006, the battle to replace Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pitted Harold Ford Jr., a Democratic congressman, against former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, a wealthy businessman.

Harold Ford Jr. is black. When Corker’s poll numbers were going south, Republican operatives pulled out the race card, a tactic that has served them well since Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Terry Nelson headed the RNC’s “independent expenditure” unit, which financed a notorious campaign ad that suggested an illicit sexual relationship between the black congressman and a white woman in a Tennessee senate race.

RNC chair Ken Mehlman was shocked that anyone would interpret the ad as such. Besides, Mehlman pointed out in an MSNBC interview with Tim Russert, this was an independent expenditure. He had no legal authority to pull the ad. “The way that process works under the campaign reform laws,” he told Russert, “is I write a check to an independent individual. And that person’s responsible for spending money in certain states. Tennessee is one of them.” By setting up committees that ostensibly operate independently — and without direction — from party leadership, political parties circumvent spending limits in campaigns that they coordinate.

In a report by the New York Times, Vanderbilt University professor and political advertising expert John Geer said that the spot “makes the Willie Horton ad look like child’s play.”

The pressure mounted and in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Mehlman backtracked:

BLITZER: Listen to what former United States Republican senator William Cohen, who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration, he was here on Monday. Listen to what he said.

COHEN: I think the Republicans have to be careful also in terms of not engaging in conduct — and I was watching the Tennessee race specifically. It reminded me of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, a purely overt racist approach.

MEHLMAN: Wolf, I agree with Senator Cohen. As you remember, I made some news last year when I spoke at the NAACP and as chairman of the Republican Party said it was wrong Republicans did that in the past. I was condemned by some within my own party. I stand behind that statement. I would never countenance an ad that does that.

[Im]plausible deniability for Corker and Mehlman: Neither of them had anything to do with it. Why, those nasty consultants wouldn’t even listen to Corker, who said the ad was “distasteful.” So who actually produced the ad?

Enter Scott Howell, notorious Republican hit man and Nelson’s close associate. This is the man who in 2002 helped create an ad for Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss that attacked Max Cleland, the Democratic incumbent and triple-amputee Vietnam veteran by claiming he was weak on national security. The ad featured an image of Osama bin Laden. Like Nelson, Howell is a Karl Rove acolyte who boosted his career with Rove’s direct-mail business in Texas.

“Distasteful?” Well, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

The Harold Ford ad was eventually pulled, but not before it did its job. Polls taken immediately before the ad ran and shortly after it was pulled showed that Corker had moved from a dead heat to an 8–10 point lead.

Corker had the best of all worlds: The ad stirred the racial pot and energized his base with an assortment of non-racial claims that included financial backing by pornographers to the usual tax, spending and weak-on-national-security Republican attack issues. By calling it “distasteful,” Corker gave moderate and independent voters the impression that he was a decent fellow.

Corker won the election, but Nelson lost Walmart as a client. When union groups and prominent black leaders spotlighted its association with Nelson, Walmart decided it couldn’t afford further damage to its already negative image.

There’s more to Nelson than simple race-baiting in pursuit of getting Republican candidates elected. When Texas prosecutors indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on campaign finance-related charges, they alleged that Nelson was the conduit for $190,000 laundered through the RNC from DeLay’s political action committee to Texas House of Representatives candidates.

Meanwhile, in the 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal, which tied up Democratic phone lines and blocked their get-out-the-vote effort, one of the campaign operatives sentenced to prison reported to Nelson.

None of it was a problem for John McCain, not even the 2000 South Carolina primary in which a push polling operation spread rumors that McCain had fathered a black child. At the time McCain said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for the rumor mongers. Nelson — George W. Bush’s one-time political director — had found it: McCain hired him as campaign manager for his 2008 presidential campaign. He fired Nelson shortly thereafter. The campaign was a shambles and McCain claimed Nelson was spending too much money too quickly.

Nelson and his associates are truly a rogue’s gallery of political operatives. One standout Nelson associate is Chris LaCivita, of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and a former political operative for Sen. Bill Frist. McCain called his smear campaign against John Kerry “dishonest and dishonorable.” Another is GOP operative Danny Diaz, a master of opposition research, Nelson’s consulting partner and now Jeb Bush’s campaign manager. But as deplorable as the operatives’ tactics are, it’s the clients who hire them who are ultimately responsible for the toxic sludge that politics has become. Now, we can add the “moderate, decent” Bush the Third to the list.

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