GOP Gubernatorial Primary a Delicate Equilibrium

In the Republican primary, all the candidates need each other

Candidates campaign against each other, but in the case of the Republicans running for governor there is also a strange symbiosis in which they each need others in order to win the race.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey needs Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam in the race, otherwise the Knoxville metro area might be trending strongly for Congressman Zach Wamp. Wamp has been ubiquitous in the Knoxville media for the last 15 years and represents counties adjacent to Knox. It is no coincidence that in the last re-redistricting, Wamp gave up counties down in the Sequatchie Valley and picked up more counties around Knoxville. Haslam’s entry into the gubernatorial race scotches Wamp’s Knoxville strategy.

Oak Ridge federal contractor executives who might have been all in for Wamp now have to lay low or write two checks, unwilling to dis either Wamp or Haslam.

Haslam needs Ramsey in the race for two reasons. Ramsey prevents Wamp from locking down the conservative wing of the Republican Party, a large voting bloc in a statewide Republican primary. Ramsey also locks down the First Congressional district—an upper East Tennessee area of rural and small-town conservative counties that might have been fertile ground for Wamp against the perceived “moderate” Haslam. Wamp and Ramsey also split the single issue “gun vote” that is likely to shun Haslam as being too moderate on the issue.

Wamp needs Haslam in the race to run against. Without a perceived monied “establishment” candidate like Haslam, Wamp and Ramsey would be trying to out conservative each other and battling straight up. Having Ramsey and Bill Gibbons in the race puts Haslam in the position of running in a pack and taking on all comers. In a straight-up race, Wamp vs. Haslam, Haslam’s money advantage might crush Wamp, especially in the early going.

But Wamp would benefit much more by either Ramsey or Haslam getting out. Without Ramsey he is the lone conservative standard-bearer. Without Haslam he is running strong in the Knoxville metro area.

All three of these candidates need Bill Gibbons in the race. Gibbons, a former county commissioner, city councilman, and current district attorney for Shelby County is popular at home. On a visit last week, over a plate of Chesapeake’s salmon, he cited two polls, one of his and one by another candidate, which show him running better than 60 percent in his home county. Shelby County represents the largest single geographic bloc in a Republican primary. (Tom Perdue, the brilliant strategist who took political neophyte Bill Frist to the U.S. Senate in 1994, realized this and nailed down Shelby County for Frist early and defeated Bob Corker’s East Tennessee-based strategy.)

With Gibbons in the race, possibly negating the Shelby County windfall, the three East Tennessee candidates can work their geographic base and concentrate on the real battleground—the heavily Republican collar counties around Nashville. They still go to Memphis, of course, but they only have to do okay there—it isn’t critical and they don’t have to spend as much time there or spend as much money in an expensive media market. Gibbons prevents one of their other opponents racking up a huge Shelby County vote.

Gibbons sees having the Shelby base as his path to victory, supposing he can do okay in middle Tennessee. If Haslam, Wamp and Ramsey split the remaining vote into roughly three parts, then Gibbons doesn’t look like a lost cause. That’s why he is still in the race.

There will be pressure in the coming months for someone to drop out, and most any drop-out probably helps Wamp more than anyone else. He is likely the second choice for supporters of two of his opponents. Ramsey among conservatives and Haslam in the Knoxville metro area.

Haslam might benefit the most from Gibbons leaving the race. He has the most money and could lay siege to Memphis with a media blitz. He is also popular with the business community there who would have no trouble supporting Haslam were Gibbons not in the race.

The Republican primary is a carefully balanced seesaw

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