When the field was set for the Republican gubernatorial primary, the consensus seemed to be that Bill Haslam was best positioned to lead the race. You often heard “It’s Haslam’s to lose.” He is an attractive candidate with executive experience and all the money he needs.
But it’s time to take another look at Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
In recent weeks, Ramsey has been creating a lot of buzz and is coming on strong. Ramsey was expected to be handicapped by the ethics law that prevents him from raising money while the Legislature is in session. But being in session has also meant he is making news every week.
A recent private poll shows Ramsey with the highest statewide name recognition, not surprising since the other candidates have not ventured beyond home base during their careers. Ramsey has been stumping Lincoln Day dinners for years trying to elect Republican senators to take over and make him the Speaker—and he has succeeded.
In addition to making news, Ramsey also has a Senate colleague in every district around the state and in a Republican primary in Republican counties, he has someone to introduce him around if they don’t know him already. Republican senators might like some of the other gubernatorial candidates, but they know that if Ramsey wins he will be governor. If he loses, he will still be lieutenant governor, deciding their committee assignments and chairmanships. But he is genuinely liked by his colleagues, and most of them owe him for election help and contributions. In Knox County, you would think state Sen. Jamie Woodson might be in the Haslam camp, but Ramsey made her Speaker Pro Tem and in good position to be “Lite Guv” (as they call it around Capitol Hill) should he win. Woodson is also suspected of having gubernatorial ambitions.
Ramsey is also the most knowledgeable candidate in the race on state issues and state government. He will play a major role in passing Gov. Phil Bredesen’s budget—or offering alternatives to it.
Meanwhile, Rep. Zach Wamp has to spend the work week in Washington and campaign on the weekends. He has an advantage in being able to announce grants and appropriations back home, though in a Republican primary that cuts both ways. While announcing funds makes some people happy, Wamp has to defend his largesse from criticism about “earmarks.”
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has been busy getting his city budget ready for the coming fiscal year. He had his budget lunch, and (surprise, surprise) announced there would be no tax increase.
Bill Gibbons is getting around to events, but hasn’t generated a lot of statewide news coverage.
Ramsey will be able to raise money as soon as session is over, but he knows he will not be able to raise as much as Haslam. But Haslam will have to spend a lot of money introducing himself to every part of the state outside the Knoxville metro area. Not that Ramsey is a household name around the state, but his name is often broadcast in the “collar” counties around Nashville on television and, especially, on talk radio.
Ramsey, unlike Haslam, doesn’t have to learn the code words in answering special interest hot-button issues. That’s another advantage of repeated Lincoln Day dinner visits.
Wamp’s candidacy will be an interesting test as to whether congressmen are viable statewide candidates. Ray Blanton and Don Sundquist are the only two congressmen elected governor in modern times, and neither left office with much popular support. To find another congressman as governor you have to go back to Jim Nance McCord in 1945. Wamp also has to weigh upcoming votes in Congress on various budget and stimulus proposals, issues that have been a minefield of late.
Ramsey is prepared, has a statewide network, and will be able to raise enough money to be competitive. Haslam has the formidable statewide machine that has generated the money and staff to elect Lamar Alexander, Fred Thompson, and Bob Corker.
The debates in the Republican primary will be “must see” TV.