Show Me the Money
Harwell would be a great candidate for governor, but…
by Frank Cagle
Some Republicans have been frustrated as potential candidate after potential candidate has decided not to run against Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. The good news is that the candidate that has yet to rule it out is the best of the lot. The bad news is that it is by no means certain that state Rep. Beth Harwell will do it either.
Harwell has a solid near 20-year career in the Legislature. The Nashville legislator has an impeccable voting record, solid service and would be an excellent governor. Based on her knowledge of state government and her abilities, she may be most qualified candidate to be governor since the era of the “professional governors” Buford Ellington and Frank Clement, who alternated in the job for 18 years in the days before two consecutive four year terms were established. She has said she will make a decision sometime after the holidays.
There are a lot of potential voters that are upset with Bredesen. The promised reform of TennCare became a series of draconian cuts. Scandals that have rocked the legislature and the Highway Patrol have created an atmosphere of “throw the bums out.” There is a solid base of Republican voters there for the taking.
But the overwhelming problem that Harwell faces is that the people who fund statewide political races are unlikely to pony up for any serious effort to defeat Bredesen.
There is that party mailing list that reliably generates $100 and $200 contributions from all across the state. It is extremely important, and it raises some money to run a race. I daresay it generates more contributions than even the Highway Patrol. But it isn’t enough to mount a good campaign against an incumbent governor.
The people who give the big contributions made their investment in 2002, and they would like to see it be good for eight years. If they backed the winner, they are not enthusiastic about changing the status quo. If they backed the wrong horse, they have made it right by contributing to the incumbent re-elect. The first thing a new governor does is to reach out to the financial backers of his defeated opponent and bring them on board. People who have made up with the current governor know that again contributing to his opponent will not be forgiven. If you are a lawyer, developer or in the construction business and you ever want to do business with state government, you don’t rock the boat.
While rank and file Republicans are seeking a candidate, and there are a lot of people upset with Bredesen, the rainmakers are fairly content. The only disgruntled group of any size might be the road builders, but it is not likely an industry that depends on the Tennessee Department of Transportation to exist will stage a mass revolt against an incumbent governor—even if they are mad at the current commissioner.
The trial lawyers are not too happy with Bredesen’s workers’ comp reforms that limited their ability to sue, but trial lawyers supporting a Republican? They are mad at Bredesen for adopting a Republican attitude on the issue.
There are three candidates running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, and they are all fundraising on a daily basis. A lot of the big money contributors are signed on for former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and committed to raising him a huge war chest. Their availability to fundraise for a gubernatorial race would be limited, even if they didn’t support Bredesen. There is also the question of able Republican fundraising staff, most of who are now working for one of the Senate candidates or for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
You can argue that there are extenuating circumstances. Harwell is well known across the state as a former chair of the Republican Party. She would be a serious candidate, not a sacrificial lamb or a protest candidate like John Jay Hooker. An argument could be made that if she made this race and did a credible job and the margin was anywhere less than the 55-45 range, it would be a moral victory and position her to be the leading candidate to succeed Bredesen in 2010. But even a great campaign wouldn’t prevent other candidates from entering an open Republican primary in 2010.
Is there an equalizer in this race? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just another pipe dream. Harwell is a good friend of former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. Thompson could host some standing-room-only fund-raisers and open some pockets. He could also campaign for Harwell. How much would it be worth to have Fred and Beth in the red pickup driving from Mountain City to Memphis the last two weeks of the campaign?
I’m sure all these arguments are being made to Harwell, encouraging her to run. I’m sure they are telling her the money will be raised. But if she is wise she will recite back a line from a recent popular movie: Show me the money.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .