Ideology isn’t the Only Factor
Let’s don’t forget Tennessee has three grand divisions
by Frank Cagle
Conventional wisdom has it that former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary will split the conservative vote in the upcoming Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, leaving the door open for a possible win by the less conservative candidate, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. I think most of the conventional wisdom on this race is wrong.
First, I don’t think Bryant and Hilleary will split the base. I think as we move closer to the August primary the Republican base will move toward a consensus on one or the other. I don’t know which way it will go, but I think one of them will pull away by at least 20 or 30 points. If Corker supporters think he can win with a plurality produced by an even split among the conservatives they need to rethink strategy.
There is also a strong belief that this race is all about ideology. Ideas are always a factor in Republican politics, and there are a lot of single-issue voters. But in Tennessee, you also have to factor in geography. There is a reason that we have the concept, unknown in any other state, of the three grand divisions. The counties are codified in law as being from three separate divisions, not to mention their representation on the state flag. In political terms the three grand divisions are still too simplistic; there is urban versus rural versus suburban. Then there is the split between Legacy Republicans in East Tennessee and Born-Again Republicans in Middle and West.
Corker will certainly do well in his hometown of Chattanooga. He will also do pretty well in Knoxville. In fact, most of the various factions in what is generally known as the Knox County Republican Party are aligned with Corker. Most elected Republican officials are openly for Corker or neutral in the race. The corridor from Oak Ridge/Knoxville to Chattanooga will provide a good vote for Corker. That has led many locals to think Corker, with his financial resources, has a lock on the race. They ought to get out more.
Bryant, a former U.S. attorney and congressman from West Tennessee, will have strong support in Shelby County and any Republican voters that can be found between there and Nashville. He has been endorsed by Tennessee Right to Life. Hilleary is very popular in the collar counties of Republican voters around Nashville. He carried them in the 2002 gubernatorial race, and he has been based in Murfreesboro since. He also has the endorsement of many of the firebrand Republican legislators in that area. Bryant, whose district ran up into the Nashville suburbs, will also get votes there, of course. Middle Tennessee will be the battleground between the two.
The area that may tell the tale is Upper East Tennessee. The Tri-Cities and surrounding counties are the biggest unknown in the race. The Christian Right is very strong in upper East Tennessee. There is also a rather large contingent of traditional East Tennessee Republicans, especially in the business community in Kingsport and Johnson City. The area is a tossup.
I know all the candidates in this race. I worked in Hilleary’s gubernatorial campaign. I supported Corker in 1994. I supported Bryant in his race in 2002. They are all good men. Any one of the three will beat Congressman Harold Ford Jr. like a rented mule. In the current political climate, anyone who thinks a Ford from Memphis can win a statewide race in Tennessee is living in a dream world.
I grant you that Junior is a nice guy. I like him too, personally. I also think he’s charismatic. The political reality is that he has too much baggage to win. His uncle is under indictment. His aunt’s election to the state Senate is under investigation. It doesn’t matter how many national media organizations come down here and salivate over the next Barack Obama, it ain’t gonna happen.
The only chance Ford has is if the Republican Party completely self-destructs. It is unfortunate that the Republican primary has degenerated into name-calling, gotcha press releases and vicious attacks. But as many partisans as there are in the Republican Party, none of them will turn to Ford if their candidate loses.
Corker’s financial advantage will be very helpful. He has an opportunity to use television advertising to overcome a lack of name recognition outside his home base. But Bryant and Hilleary have run a lot of races at the congressional-district level and have won them. Both have recently run statewide races. Even in losing, they gained valuable experience. Corker has to demonstrate that he has the organizational ability to mount a statewide campaign. He is an able man and may pull it off; but he has a steep learning curve.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .