frank_talk (2006-32)

Golden Rule Party

Tennessee statewide races: ‘No poor boys need apply’

by Frank Cagle

The bumper stickers for the November election will reveal more about politics in Tennessee than any examination of the “issues.” It isn’t about what’s on the stickers. It’s where they are. From Germantown to Belle Meade to Signal Mountain to Sequoyah Hills you will see SUVs with a Corker bumper sticker on one side and a Bredesen sticker on the other.

It is no longer about Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee: it’s the Golden Rule Party, as in them that has the gold, rule.

U.S. Senate candidate Bob Corker and gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson had a joint rally Saturday in Chattanooga to announce the “Republican ticket” for the November election. Well, not really. Some of Corker’s biggest backers are, by and large, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s backers. Bryson is not going to get the financial support and the Republican establishment support Corker will get. In 2002 many Republican business leaders supported U.S. Senate candidate Lamar Alexander, but preferred Democratic candidate Bredesen to Republican gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary. It will be true for Bryson as well, only magnified by Bredesen being an incumbent.

I’m a free enterprise capitalist, and I’m happy about anyone making money. I just wish they’d go back to spending it on Sam Furrow’s cars and condos in Hilton Head. I’d rather they didn’t continue the latest fad of buying political office.

Bill Frist used his personal wealth to win a U.S. Senate seat. Phil Bredesen used his personal wealth to nail down the governorship. When Fred Thompson announced he would not run for re-election, Lamar Alexander slammed $100,000 into a campaign account and got out of the blocks the next day. Ed Bryant never caught up. Now Corker has spent $2 million of his own money to win the Republican Senate primary and will most likely spend millions more for the general election. Are we seeing a pattern here?

Personal wealth is especially pernicious in Tennessee because we have so few statewide offices. There is no opportunity for a middle-class citizen to get elected as attorney general, lieutenant governor or secretary of state, build an organization, and build credibility with the populace, then run for governor or the Senate. In Tennessee you don’t run a statewide race unless you are going for all the marbles. That’s why personal wealth is such a huge advantage in Tennessee elections.

Imagine the comfort level of a wealthy candidate able to plan out media buys through Election Day. Having the ability to spend what’s necessary to shore up a weak spot or flood a particular media market. Ordinary candidates are faced with daily uncertainty, living from fund-raising event to fund-raising event and waiting to see if the direct mail garnered enough money for the next media buy or to pay the staff.

Richard Roberts, hitherto an unknown lawyer from Greeneville, spent his personal funds on a massive television campaign for Congress representing the First District. This total unknown came in third behind David Davis and Richard Venable, two men who have spent over a decade in public office. What made Roberts a serious candidate to serve in Congress and garner him votes over county mayors, city mayors and the like in a crowded field? The only thing separating him from any Joe on the street was his ability and his willingness to buy television commercials.

One of the big questions in this most recent Senate primary is why either Van Hilleary or Ed Bryant didn’t drop out so the other could rally the base and defeat the well-funded Corker. Between the two they got 52 percent of the vote. The assumption is Hilleary’s voters would have gone to Bryant and Bryant voters would have gone to Hilleary. I’m told internal polls reveal that not to be the case. Corker’s voters came from his television advertising, which raised his name ID. These votes came from Hilleary’s initial high name recognition from his gubernatorial race. Internal polling revealed Hilleary voters’ second choice was Corker. If Hilleary had dropped out it would have given Corker more votes. I also understand from some Bryant supporters that if Ed had dropped out his supporters would have blamed Hilleary and most likely would have gone to Corker. It goes against conventional wisdom, but having a three-person race actually depressed Corker’s numbers. If he had faced only one under-funded conservative he may have garnered an even larger margin.

Looking forward to the next governor’s race, when Bredesen leaves office, one wonders which millionaire businessman will step up and offer himself for public service? It will be the Republican wing of the Golden Rule Party’s turn to elect a governor. Hmm. Wonder where they will find the next rich mayor of a major city in Tennessee.

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