It's hard to believe, but the Republicans will be picking their candidate for governor in just 68 days. The run-up to the election will be the dog days of summer television re-runs—a time of vacations, cook-outs, trips to the lake, kids at camp, and other distractions.
So where do they stand now?
In East Tennessee most people think Congressman Zach Wamp and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam are running about even. Wamp seems to have Chattanooga nailed down, as you would expect. But Wamp also has come claim to part of Haslam's base, having represented Oak Ridge and several counties to the north of Knoxville. So Wamp can argue he comes out of East Tennessee with a slight lead.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey should do well in the Tri-Cities, though Haslam and Wamp are also strong in the other counties in Upper East Tennessee. Haslam, for instance, is supported by Greeneville millionaire businessman Scott Niswonger.
Ramsey lost fund-raising time during the legislative session, but he was also constantly in the news. But given the difficulty of the budget process and various controversies it is an open question whether the news opportunities help him or hurt him. Wamp is working hard to get conservative interest groups, like Tennessee Right to Life, to support him. If Ramsey and Wamp are battling for the conservative base such groups can be important. One of them needs to take a clear lead.
Haslam's advertising has increased his name recognition. But if you drill down to people who will actually vote in a Republican primary, is his support soft? Wamp's ads are hard-edged on jobs and industrial development, he has some credibility on the issue with his years of support for the Technology Corridor and the building of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Haslam has emphasized his business background with Pilot and creating jobs as a result.
The impression at this point is that Ramsey in the race helps Haslam; and if he isn't competitive, then why is he hanging around? Ramsey, Haslam, and Wamp are competitive in the "collar counties" around Nashville. Legislative news is more of a local story there and it helps Ramsey.
So Ramsey is doing well around Nashville and in his home base, the places where he has been tied down during the legislative session. Supporters of Wamp and Haslam think Ramsey has been unable to close in West Tennessee as a result.
Both camps believe the race may come down to Shelby County, a vote-rich Republican area choosing among three candidates from East Tennessee. Wamp and Haslam are going at it head-up in Shelby and rural West Tennessee. Haslam has the money for saturation advertising in the expensive Memphis media market. But Shelby County is the home of more "movement" conservatives that any other area of Tennessee, and Wamp has more of an appeal with those voters.
It appears that Haslam has more money for ads, but Wamp is getting more bang for his buck. Wamp's ads are just better. The question for the last two months of the primary campaign is whether Haslam will go negative on Wamp. I have never known Bill Haslam to "go negative" in a political campaign or in advocating an issue. But the stakes are high in this election and he may not have a choice. He is certainly surrounded by people who have no problem playing hard ball.
Wamp can be hit on a variety of issues, including his congressional record. He has also lived in a house in Washington with other politicians who have be involved in high-profile scandals. There is certainly material for a series of negative ads tying Wamp to the "mess in Washington," a continuous theme of various other races around the nation this year.
But Wamp's persona, a combative pugnacious brawler, fits the profile of your average Tea Party member. He has the tone right, damn the facts. Is Haslam "hot" enough for the angry voter? Is this a time for a measured, calm chief executive or for an evangelical preacher?
If Ramsey fades or drops out, if Haslam doesn't go after Wamp hard, if conservative groups align with Wamp, then Zach Wamp is the Republican nominee for governor.