We don’t pick our statewide offices by geography, but it does play an important role in our selection process. Any viable candidate should get initial support in his home county. The trick is to go to the other guys’ counties and peel off votes and to get “first-is with the most-is” in the places where there is no candidate.
So here’s your Republican primary scorecard as Knoxville’s Mayor Bill Haslam sets out to be the next governor, running against Congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey from the Tri-Cities, and DA Bill Gibbons from Shelby County.
Shelby County has the largest concentration of Republican primary voters with over 60,000 votes. This can be misleading, however. You also have to count the suburbs in neighboring counties. And a lot of the Memphis suburbs these days are in Mississippi and Arkansas. The two counties to the east, in Tennessee, contain only 11,000 voters.
Knox County has a little more than half the voters of Shelby County, at about 35,000 per statewide Republican primary. But if you include the counties that touch Knox, and are in the Knoxville media market, you add another 35,000 Republican voters, to push the metro vote total to 70,000. Roughly the same as Shelby County.
In Wamp’s home county of Hamilton, Republican voters number about 30,000. Again, some of the Chattanooga suburbs are in Georgia. If you throw in the sparsely populated six counties around Chattanooga it bumps the Chattanooga metro vote to about 58,000. Wamp has represented counties all the way up to the Kentucky line and around the north end of Knox County. He has assiduously courted Oak Ridge during his time in congress. One question for the campaign is whether these counties look toward Wamp as “their” guy or whether Haslam claims them.
Ramsey comes from the smallest town of any candidate, but there are 12 counties in the 1st Congressional District of Upper East Tennessee. It is the most Republican area of the state, and the total vote there is about 68,000. It would have been a target-rich environment for Haslam and Wamp, but Ramsey’s entrance into the race changes things considerably.
So all the Republicans have a base, though Wamp’s may be the smallest. That leaves the Nashville metro area as a prize for any of the candidates to try and claim. Each of them will have to get their share there and if any one of them dominates it could decide the election. Nashville and the seven “collar” counties around it votes 78,000 Republicans in a primary. The “collar” counties, which contain 58,000 votes, are some of the most conservative in the state. They are virulently anti-tax and the Right to Life movement is very strong. A “movement” conservative will find a receptive audience and it could be where Wamp makes some inroads.
Should Gibbons turn out to be a popular choice in Shelby County and get his share in Middle Tennessee, he could be a contender. The only modern-day Republican governors except for Lamar Alexander were from the Shelby County area—Winfield Dunn and Don Sundquist. But Sundquist and Dunn assiduously courted East Tennessee voters and big contributors for years before they ran.
Haslam needs to hold his base, work Middle Tennessee and get a share of Shelby.
Wamp has to do well in Nashville metro and concentrate on “movement” conservatives for energy and grassroots support.
Gibbons has to convince Shelby County voters he can win and he has to get into Nashville metro. He has left it too late to make serious inroads in East Tennessee.
Ramsey has a strong base, he will be in the news in Nashville for the remainder of the session, and he has name recognition in the “collar” counties.
There’s your scorecard for the upcoming gubernatorial race among the Republicans. Will Haslam’s fund-raising leave the rest behind? Can Wamp excite the base? Watch for poll results in Middle Tennessee. Watch for any candidate making headway against Gibbons in Shelby County.