The Senate Horse Race
Corker just off the pace in early going, plans move in final stretch
by Frank Cagle
The campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Majority Leader Bill Frist has finally begun in earnest; television ads are running, polls are being conducted and debate schedules are being debated.
Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker has begun to spend some of his hefty campaign contributions and his name identification is beginning to rise. He is even out of the single digits where he began. He will have enough money to be a contender in the race and has positioned himself where he wants to be. If you are a Kentucky Derby fan, consider him just off the pace at the first turn, husbanding his strength for a mad dash in the home stretch. That’s been his strategy all along and he is staying on plan.
Van Hilleary, the former congressman, does not have the money to match Corker in television advertising. But he does have higher name identification from his primary and general-election race for governor in 2002. In every in-state media poll since the race began, Hilleary has had higher name identification and has led his two opponents; that includes the poll last week by Nashville’s City Paper and WTN, the talk radio station in Nashville.
Between Corker and Hilleary it may be a race to see whether Corker can spend enough money to overcome Hilleary’s name ID in the stretch or whether Hilleary will have the ability to go wire to wire.
That brings us to the third candidate in the race, former Congressman Ed Bryant. Bryant does not have Corker’s money or the name identification of Hilleary. It is hard to see how he overcomes having the worst of both worlds. Bryant does well in his old congressional district in West Tennessee, of course. But he needs to make more inroads in Middle and East Tennessee. Geography still plays a major role in Tennessee Republican politics.
What Bryant does have is strong support from a core group of dedicated conservatives. In 2002, when Bryant ran against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the primary, you could find strong Bryant support at any Republican gathering in the state. I had occasion to attend quite a few rallies and Lincoln Day dinners that year, working in Hilleary’s gubernatorial campaign. Everybody loved Ed. Most anyone who meets him and talks with him for any length of time likes him.
The problem for Bryant this time around, as in 2002, is that he can’t meet and impress everyone he needs to win a statewide election. Talking with activists who knew him in 2002 gave you the impression Bryant would do well in the primary, but Alexander had no trouble winning the race. The question for Bryant this time around is whether many of the same political activists and leaders of such organizations as Tennessee Right to Life will be enough of a factor in the primary to offset the advantages of Hilleary and Corker. At least this time he isn’t running against a former two-term governor.
No doubt many of Bryant’s supporters are livid that he doesn’t have the resources to compete on a level playing field. And one can understand their anger at the suggestion that he will split the conservative base and help elect the more liberal Corker. They can point out that Bryant ran for the Senate four years ago and that this time “it’s his turn.” Well, politics doesn’t work that way. It’s a contest anyone can enter and you have to bring your best game. You don’t get
At this stage the hard-headed political reality is it is a race between Hilleary and Corker. That assumes no major missteps by either, which is always possible.
To return to the Kentucky Derby analogy, when they get to the final turn and sprint down the homestretch, it will be Hilleary by a nose and Corker making his move to sweep ahead at the wire.
Hilleary’s concerns are twofold. Yes, he has higher name identification. Far more people voted for him in the gubernatorial race than voted for Bryant and Corker’s totals combined in their statewide races. But will that name ID translate into votes this time around?
The second concern for Hilleary is the nightmarish similarity of this primary to his general-election gubernatorial bid. Hilleary was in contention until the final three weeks, when he got carpet bombed by television advertising by a well-funded independently wealthy opponent.
As I’ve said before, I think the race will be decided in upper East Tennessee. It’s the only congressional district where neither candidate has a geographical advantage. Considering there is also an open congressional seat in that district with a dozen candidates, the easiest sales job in the state in the coming months will be 30-second spots on Tri-Cities television.
That’s the battleground.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .