frank_talk (2006-31)

Corker ‘Mo’ Slows

Ads don’t pass the smell test

by Frank Cagle

I remain skeptical about polling results in a Republican primary. A statewide poll includes Democrats, independents and the occasional liar. But there have been several polls recently which, taken together, suggest Bob Corker has been leading in the Senate primary.

I predicted earlier that Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary would not split the conservative vote evenly, but one of them would break out near election time. I thought it might be Hilleary, given his higher name recognition at the start of the race.

State Rep. Chris Clem, the sage of Chattanooga, agreed with my analysis but said Bryant would be the candidate to break out. He argued that Hilleary’s name recognition would evaporate once Corker’s television advertising kicked in and Bryant’s supporters would “stick.” If recent polls are to be believed, Clem may be right. And some of the polls, lousy as they might be, may become self-fulfilling prophecies. If either Bryant or Hilleary pulls ahead of the other by a substantial margin, it spells trouble for Corker.

Today we will get an accurate count on the people voting in the Republican primary, and the results could be surprising. That’s because Corker’s juggernaut has stalled. Corker, for all his money, has evidently hired the worst opposition researcher working in politics. His negative ads against Bryant and Hilleary are stupid, wrong, and more importantly in politics, they do not pass the smell test. Conservative Tennessee Republicans have been aware of Bryant’s and Hilleary’s careers in congress. To argue they raised taxes, raised their pay and have been weak on illegal immigration is laughable. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Bryant and Hilleary, but these gentlemen were the prototype representatives elected in the Contract with America class of 1994.

The Tennessee media was predisposed to support Corker. Corker has been endorsed on almost all the editorial pages. Many political pundits (and even political reporters) are less than sympathetic toward Bryant and Hilleary’s conservatism. Corker’s sins in his negative ads have been egregious enough to prompt even a sympathetic media to call him out.

(Conversely, I daresay Corker has paid more taxes than Bryant and Hilleary put together. For Bryant to raise questions about whether Corker paid taxes for some years is class warfare unworthy of a Republican candidate. If Corker didn’t pay taxes it was because he didn’t owe any. Since when is that a crime?)

However, if Corker should win the primary, how much credibility will he have running ads about Congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s voting record?

If Corker had continued down the high road, or had made clean hits on his opponents, it might have been possible to draw the party together after the primary. But emotions are running high and the possibility of a major split going into the general election is very real. If Corker does win the primary, what does he face in the general election? Even if Corker wins a plurality, it will mean the majority of primary voters wanted someone more conservative. Will these conservatives turn out for Corker in the fall? Or will they stay home? (Review the history of Hilleary versus Jim Henry supporters in Knoxville and the gubernatorial results in 2002.)

Corker will no longer be running against conservative Republicans. He will be running against a well-funded, confident and poised candidate: the hottest thing in Tennessee as well as the national media. Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is the political story of the year, in-state and nationally: Will he be the first black Southern senator since Reconstruction? A young man from a scandal-ridden family overcoming adversity and winning over Southern rednecks is an irresistible story line. Junior will be earning “free media” on network and cable television, and you can expect glowing profiles in national magazines and newspapers.

Junior will also have the money to answer Corker on television. Those niggling little accusations and stories about Corker will suddenly get legs with a push from the Democrats and a sympathetic candidate. Those tax returns no one seemed to care about in the primary may become sought-after items. Those illegal aliens hired by a Mud Island subcontractor will have their life stories told.

I have had conservatives tell me recently they don’t see any difference between Corker and Ford and they may vote for Ford to “pay back” the Republican establishment for “buying” the nomination. Tennessee Right to Life leaders have already said they will not endorse Corker in the general.

The slam-dunk the state Republican Party assumed upon hearing the Democrats would put up a Ford from Memphis may have been premature. They need to run another poll. I still do not believe Tennessee will elect Junior, but the way things have been going in the Republican primary it can no longer be ruled out.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .