Former state GOP chair Chip Saltsman takes over ad, communication strategy

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – An early polling favorite in the First Congressional District Primary has changed key members of his campaign management team.

State Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), who is among 16 Republican candidates vying for the chance to succeed outgoing Tennessee First District Congressman Phil Roe (R-Johnson City), is no longer working with Shell Miller Sebastian, a local advertising firm that has managed many area campaigns.

“This was a mutually agreed upon decision,” Crowe said Tuesday.

Vicki Shell acknowledged the split, which she said occurred a couple weeks ago, to News Channel 11 Monday. She said it was the first time in 32 years and more than 100 campaigns she had “dropped” a candidate.

“Let’s just say irreconcilable differences,” Shell said.

Crowe, who has represented the area in the state senate since first being elected in 1990, is now using former Tennessee Republican Party chairman John “Chip” Saltsman for his advertising. Saltsman, who was a senior advisor to Mike Huckabee’s 2016 presidential campaign, is co-founder and CEO of Red Dog Media.

Rusty Crowe

“Chip has never lost a Congressional race,” Crowe said. “Different parts of a race require different approaches and in talking with everyone involved it was decided that this was the best thing so that I could have that input that I think I need going down the stretch.”

Another consultant, Bonnie Brezina, is handling the “grassroots” elements of Crowe’s campaign.

“I know Chip and Bonnie have a plan, they’ll put that plan in place,” Crowe said. “Bonnie said to me, ‘Rusty, I’m going to work your tail off — you’re going to hate me in a month or so.’ She’ll make sure I’m doing those things on the ground that need to get done.”

That started with a trip to Sevierville Monday, where Crowe opened an office and captured the endorsement of Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor, Senator Randy McNally.

“I’m excited to be a part of Senator Crowe’s campaign team,” Brezina said in a statement Tuesday. “Yesterday, we opened our Sevier county campaign headquarters with great enthusiasm, followed by an endorsement from Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally. We are not focused on the past; we are focused on the future and look forward to winning in August.”

The first public indication of the change came Monday when Brezina emailed a news release to area media highlighting McNally’s endorsement.

As other campaigns have taken to the airwaves and internet with video ads, Crowe’s has remained on the sidelines despite his having outraised all other candidates in the first quarter of the year. Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger and former Kingsport mayor John Clark began advertising in late April and early May, while State Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville) released his first video ad early this month.

Early voting begins in mid-July. Crowe said he’s confident the timing will work out for him based on Saltsman’s counsel.

“He has said, ‘Rusty, you’re going to have people asking, ‘when are you doing things?’ He said ‘trust me, we have a plan and the plan’s in place so I think we’re in good shape at this point to move forward.”

Crowe led a January poll conducted by Spry Strategies out of Knoxville, and that company’s CEO, Ryan Burrell, said he also led when Spry polled 600 likely voters in mid-May.

That poll showed Crowe with 21.7 percent support, with Harshbarger and Hill tied at 12 percent each. Former Johnson City mayor Steve Darden was at 10.3 percent, Clark at 9.2 percent and State Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) at 7.7 percent.

“Rusty’s favorable ratings and his name ID were by far the best,” Burrell said. Crowe was rated favorably by 33.9 percent of those polled and unfavorably by 9 percent with the remainder having no opinion or not knowing who he was.

Burrell said Harshbarger had “decent name ID” but was split nearly evenly on favorable and unfavorable at around 12 percent.

Crowe doesn’t have the ability to self-fund, but said he’s continued to receive good support this quarter, despite COVID-19, after raising a little more than $200,000 in the first quarter.

“It’s been a life of public service, not a life of bringing in lots of dollars like a couple of those candidates that may have deep pockets,” he said. He added that internal information suggests the race may be realistically down to just several potential winners — including, in his opinion, him.

“From what I can gather, the meetings that we’re having … I’m getting a great response there and things are looking good.”