Haslam vs. McWherter: The Governor's Race

We almost had that election—in 1986

In 1986 Jim Haslam took stock. He had been on a national championship football team at the University of Tennessee. He'd served as an officer in the Korean War. He had started and built a successful business. He was a leader of the Knoxville business community who played an important role in keeping the town from going off the rails in the wake of the Butcher bank failures. He had helped his friend Lamar Alexander get elected and re-elected governor.

Why wouldn't he be a good governor and a worthy successor to Alexander?

He eased around the state, but it was apparent that there was a lot of support for calling on former Gov. Winfield Dunn to come back. There was no sentiment anywhere for a brutal primary fight, so Haslam deferred. As it turned out, the Republican Party had not anticipated the deep-seated hostility to Dunn in upper East Tennessee because, when he was governor, he had opposed the establishment of a medical school in Johnson City. Republican Congressman Jimmy Quillen led a parade of East Tennessee Republicans in support of the Democratic Party nominee, House Speaker Ned McWherter. Without a strong vote in East Tennessee, Republican Dunn could not defeat Democrat McWherter.

So a race between Jim Haslam and Ned McWherter did not materialize, though it is tantalizing to imagine what might have happened. McWherter went on to serve two terms as governor.

We now have a situation where the sons of these two gentlemen could face each other in the fall. Bill Haslam is considered by some to be the favorite in the Republican primary field. Mike McWherter has the name recognition and is given good odds to win the Democratic nomination.

So the potential battle in 1986 may be played out this year by the next generation.

Jim Haslam and Ned McWherter have been two of the most successful and influential figures in Tennessee in recent decades. Both millionaire businessmen. McWherter's tenure in the House created the Democratic machine that held off a Republican takeover of state government for at least a decade longer than demographics would have predicted. Haslam had been at the center of influence in the selection, promotion, and fund-raising of Republican candidates, from George Bush on the national level to Alexander and Bob Corker and Fred Thompson as Tennessee senators.

Does anyone believe, including the candidates, that Bill Haslam and Mike McWherter would be contending for the governor's office were it not for their fathers? Jim Smith and Bob Jones, with comparable resumes to Haslam and McWherter, would be relegated to "also running" status in campaign roundups.

Ned McWherter is considered to be one of our best governors and I think Jim Haslam would have been successful as well, if his business and civic success is any guide. If the sons lack the resumes of their fathers, it doesn't much matter. It's a Tennessee tradition.

Congressman Howard Baker Sr. begat Sen. Howard Baker Jr.; Sen. Albert Gore Sr. begat Sen. Albert Gore Jr.; Congressman John Duncan begat Congressman John Duncan begat Trustee candidate John Duncan. Then there are the Clements. The Coopers. The Fords. The list goes on and on.

Hereditary offices are not just a Tennessee phenomenon. The Kennedys of Massachusetts. The Byahs of Indiana. The Bushes of Texas. The Longs of Louisiana. The Talmadges of Georgia. The Sununus of Maine. The Dodds of Connecticut. The Bidens of Delaware. The Caseys of Pennsylvania.

It's not that we blindly vote for "Duncan" or "Gore" thinking the son is the father. I think we somehow think a son going into the family business is the logical thing to do. They also have dad's contacts, fund-raising list, and list of people who owe them favors. And, yes, they have name recognition.

The lucky thing for us, I suppose, is that the kid usually does a good job. In fact, they are often more successful than the father, i.e. Baker Jr., Gore Jr., Duncan Jr. There's a good chance, before the year is out, we will find out if it will happen again.

Wonder if heredity works with football coaches?