During Tuesday's "Battleground America: The Homestretch," NBC's Tim Russert talked to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman about a controversial campagin ad attacking Rep. Hardold Ford (D-Tenn.) that some say is racists. Even Bob Corker, Ford's opponent for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist, says the ad should be pulled, but Mehlman tells Russert he disagrees with "the characterization of the ad," and cannot legally remove it from running on television.
You can read the transcript below or watch the interview by clicking on the video to the right.
TIM RUSSERT, MSNBC ANCHOR: Joining us now, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman.
Ken Mehlman, welcome. And I’m going to refer you to the Rhode Island race. This is the front page of the Roll Call newspaper today: “Love Chafee, Hate Bush.” And the pollster says very clearly, if Lincoln Chafee loses his race, it’s because of President George W. Bush. Do you agree?
KEN MEHLMAN, CHMN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CMTE: I think Lincoln Chafee is going to win his race. And he’s going to win it because the people of the state know him.
I remember back in 1998, Tim, when we tried to make the election a referendum on President Clinton while he was being impeached, we ended up losing six seats.
At the end of the day, what’s going to matter is who’s on the ballot and the individual choices between the candidates running on the ballot, not just in Rhode Island but in states all over the country.
RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman, you’re chairman of the Republican National Committee. I want to show you an ad that your organization has on the air in the Tennessee Senate race between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford. Let’s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
Video: Harold Ford attack ad (UNKNOWN): Harold Ford looks nice, isn’t that enough?
(UNKNOWN): Terrorists need their privacy.
(UNKNOWN): When I die, Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again.
(UNKNOWN): Ford’s right. I do have too many guns.
(UNKNOWN): I met Harold at the Playboy party.
(UNKNOWN): I’d love to pay higher marriage taxes.
(UNKNOWN): Canada can take care of North Korea. They’re not busy.
(UNKNOWN): So he took money from porn movie producers? I mean, who hasn’t?
(UNKNOWN): The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.
(UNKNOWN): Harold, call me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman, the Republican candidate in Tennessee has asked that you take that ad off the air, that it is over the top. Former Republican Senator William Cohen says it’s, quote, “overt racist appeal.”
Will you take that ad down?
MEHLMAN: Tim, I don’t have the authority to take it down or put it up. It’s what called an independent expenditure.
The way that process works under the campaign reform laws 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.
I’ll tell you this, though. After the comments by Mr. Corker and by former Senator Cohen, I looked at the ad. I don’t agree with that characterization of it. But it’s not an ad that I have authority over. I saw it for the first time the same time that they did.
RUSSERT: Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP has criticized this ad. And he said, Ken Mehlman, that you went down to the NAACP in July of 2005 and apologized for the southern strategy of Republican candidates under Richard Nixon and using race as a wedge issue and that this ad does exactly that.
MEHLMAN: I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Shelton. I don’t believe that ad does that.
I will tell you this: I’m very proud of that speech I made. I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines. And I would denounce any ad that I felt did.
I happen not to believe that ad does, but as I said before, I don’t have the legal authority to take the ad down. It’s an independent expenditure. I looked at it. I just disagree with what Mr. Shelton said about it.
RUSSERT: Well, it’s not only Mr. Shelton. Former Senator Cohen, Vanderbilt professor John Green (sic) says it makes the Willie Horton ad look tame, that it’s filled with racial polarization.
MEHLMAN: Again, I just don’t agree with that at all. I showed it to a number of people when the complaints came out about it after it was put up—African-American folks, Hispanic folks and myself. We all looked at it. All of us, I think, are very sensitive to that. And we did not have that same reaction to it. So I just think there’s a disagreement about it.
RUSSERT: The whole idea of having a blond white woman winking at a black congressman, the notion of interracial sex is not in your mind racist?
MEHLMAN: I think that that ad talks about a number of people on the street talking about things that Mr. Ford allegedly has either done or a proposal he has for the future. I think it’s a fair ad.
As I said, we didn’t have anything to do with creating it. I just think those criticisms of it are wrong.
RUSSERT: And so the NAACP Washington director, an organization that you tried to court, is denouncing the ad—and it doesn’t seem to phase you.
MEHLMAN: Well, the Washington director of the NAACP and I happen to disagree about this.
I was proud of that speech I made. I took some heat for saying it. It was the right thing to say. I’m proud of the fact that our party under this president and under my leadership has made an incredibly aggressive effort to reach out to African-Americans.
I’m proud of the increased number of African-Americans who are running. I believe there is nothing more important we can do than bring people together. I just happen to disagree about the characterization of this ad.
And more importantly, there’s nothing I can do about it, because it’s not an ad over which I have authority or control. This is an independent expenditure.
RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman in Maryland, you have a candidate running for the U.S. Senate. And yet...
MEHLMAN: Yes. He’s a great candidate.
RUSSERT: ... his bumper sticker says Steele Democrat. He’s a Republican. And yet nowhere in his campaign literature, on his Web site, or his candidacy materials does he say he is a Republican. Isn’t this misleading advertising?
MEHLMAN: I haven’t seen the particular bumper sticker. I’ll tell you this, Michael Steele’s a great friend of mine. And I’m from the state of Maryland.
He’s going to be an unbelievable senator. And here’s why, Tim. Michael Steele’s a guy that his whole life has been breaking down barriers and changing organizations. He did it as lieutenant governor. He did it when he was the state party chairman of the Republican Party. He’s done it in many different areas.
If you want Washington to be shaken up, if you want a guy that can build interesting coalitions and can get Democrats and Republican to work together, Michael Steele can do that.
There are a heck of a lot of Democrats who are supporting Michael Steele because they’re fed up with the status quo.
And will there be a lot of folks who say Michael Steele, Democrats for Steele, independents for Steele? You bet there will be, because that’s the kind of guy he is. That’s the kind of leadership he’s provided. And that’s why I think he has such an exciting opportunity to be our next senator in the state of Maryland.
RUSSERT: Michael Steele also says that the “R” in Republican, the “R” is a scarlet letter.
MEHLMAN: Well, Michael Steele understands, I do too. Tim, I’m from the state of Maryland. In my lifetime of 40 years, we’ve had two Republican governors. One is Robert Ehrlich. Before that, it was Spiro T. Agnew.
It’s hard for Republicans in Maryland. And so, to be successful, what you’ve got to do, which Michael’s doing and which, by the way, Bob Ehrlich is going to do when he gets re-elected, is you’ve got to work in a bipartisan way, in a nonpartisan way to solve problems.
These are two men, Michael Steele and Bob Ehrlich, who have done an awesome job of reaching out, of expanding and of redefining what it means to be a Republican in Maryland.
I think it’s incredibly exciting. And I’m very proud to come from the state where these two are from.
RUSSERT: Chairman Mehlman, last call, do you hold the House and the Senate?
MEHLMAN: I believe we hold both the House and the Senate. I think that voters are going to fundamentally ask themselves the following questions: Do you want to see, if you’re a family of four making $50,000 a year, your taxes go up by $2000? That will happen if Democrats take control of either of the two houses of Congress.
Do you want to surrender the tools we’ve had after 9/11, like the Patriot Act, the surveillance program, the detention program and the interrogation program for people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Do you want to surrender missile defense?
In all of these areas, the Democrat leadership has been in favor of surrendering these tools, making America weaker in the war on terror. Republicans have wanted America to be stronger.
I think as our nation faces economic challenges in the global economy and we face a global war on terror, we don’t need higher taxes and a weaker national security.
RUSSERT: Republican Chairman Ken Mehlman, thank you for joining us.
MEHLMAN: Thanks a lot.
RUSSERT: Be safe on the campaign trail.
MEHLMAN: Thank you.