The first hurdle in Gordon Ball's race for the U.S. Senate is to convince his supporters that he is in it to stay. As recently as last summer, Ball was gearing up to run and his heart doctor said no way. But since then he's had a surgical procedure and a new round of tests and has a clean bill of health.
Sitting at his dining room table, a table piled high with legal briefs and campaign materials and research, Ball, 64, is buoyant, the picture of health, and excited about the campaign.
I went to visit to ask him, under what scenario does a Democrat win a statewide race in Tennessee against an entrenched incumbent like Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander?
Ball believes that a Democratic primary with him and Knoxville attorney Terry Adams (the other announced candidate) competing will generate some excitement in the party and will help other Democrats on the ballot. A primary might also give Democrats a reason to vote for their party nominees rather than cross over in large numbers to vote for Alexander.
Without Democratic crossover votes, and with a purely Republican turnout, it helps state Rep. Joe Carr, the conservative candidate opposing Alexander in the primary. Should Carr succeed in knocking Alexander off in the primary, moderate Republicans might be convinced to vote for the Democratic nominee in November.
It is a scenario that has played out in other states where a conservative has defeated an incumbent Republican and opened the door for the Democrats. Remember U.S. Sen. Richard Luger?
Whether such a scenario could play out in Tennessee is an open question, but it is an argument Ball and Adams can make in seeking support and contributions. It's a long-shot, but it's a shot. It it also an argument that can help stave off the perception among political reporters and donors that an Alexander win is inevitable.
Ball is a traditional conservative Southern Democrat, slightly right of center, for low taxes, balanced budgets, and that sort of thing. He's more libertarian on social issues. Pro-choice. He sees gay marriage as a state issue and believes that what people do in their bedrooms isn't the federal government's business.
He sees a major issue in the campaign as the reform, or replacement, of Obamacare. He says the Affordable Care Act is needlessly complicated and gives insurance companies too great an influence in health care. He will campaign to keep provisions like covering pre-existing conditions and letting young people stay on their parents' policies longer. But he advocates repealing the insurance-company exemption from federal anti-trust laws, which enables them to lock up markets within states and leaves customers no place else to go.
He argues for allowing (or forcing) insurance companies to compete across state lines and introducing the free market into insurance purchases. Then companies will come with policies of varying kinds and businesses and consumers have a choice of plans. Competition should bring down rates.
Ball is presently suing an insurance company in another state, arguing that the McCarran-Ferguson Act, passed in 1945, lets insurance companies create monopolies in return for being regulated by state insurance commissioners. But states can't do much to regulate rates. Massive profits and huge lobbying expenditures have allowed insurance companies to dominate the nation's health care, according to Ball, including the Affordable Care Act.
There are now four credible candidates for the U.S. Senate: Alexander, Carr, Adams, and Ball. Given the apparent lack of a governor's race, these candidates should create some excitement statewide this election year.
That's a good thing. Let the debates begin.
(Full disclosure: Ball and I are friends and have had a shared passion for cleaning up the Pigeon River, which is polluted by a North Carolina paper mill too large for the small stream. I also did some research and writing for Ball's law firm.)