The Democrats are having a hard time finding a candidate to run against Gov. Bill Haslam. They considered Sara Kyle their best hope but she has declined. Democratic leaders in the Legislature have also passed on the proposition.
The Democrats do need a candidate, however, to avoid a fiasco like a Mark Clayton winning the primary—a guy the party had to disavow in the race against U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. They also need someone at the top of the ticket to help the party down ballot if they are to pick up any legislative seats or even to hang onto what they have.
I would like to suggest an option.
There is a Democrat with statewide name recognition.
He has twice been the Democratic nominee for governor.
He is one of the greatest orators of our time—I’d buy a ticket to see him debate Haslam.
He even has a campaign song that people of a certain age can still recall.
The Democrats need to draft John Jay Hooker to enter the Democratic primary and carry their banner into the fall against Haslam.
He might be considered unlikely to win against a well-funded opponent, but he is someone the people could vote for who don’t want to support Haslam’s coronation. Hooker lost in 1970 because he was liberal before it was cool among Democrats. In 1998 the Democrats had an unknown candidate set to run against incumbent Gov. Don Sundquist. Hooker put his name on the ballot in the primary and he won. He spent, as I recall, $35 for a filing fee. Without campaigning or purchasing any ads he got 30 percent of the statewide vote against Sundquist, 40 percent in Nashville and Memphis. He carried Lake and Van Buren counties.
But it would be hard to raise money for a Hooker candidacy. Here’s a solution.
There are 35 counties in Tennessee that touch an interstate highway. Not coincidentally, these are also the counties where most of the people live. Start up in the Tri-Cities and have one debate per week on the courthouse steps in these counties. Invite everyone running for office to come down for some hot dogs and ice tea. Surely the Democratic party can afford it. Make it a get-out-the-vote rally and local officials running for office would be there to talk to the crowd.
There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Haslam would show up for the debates, but an empty chair or a cardboard cutout would suffice. It might generate some enthusiasm among the voters. It ought to generate some news coverage.
Call it the John Jay Travelin’ Salvation Show. Maybe there are some Nashville musicians who are Democrats, or at least who would be willing to play some on TV. Invite teachers to talk about the problems they see in Haslam’s education reforms.
The Democrats are not likely to have a lot of money to throw around. They can’t match Haslam in television commercials. The party’s legislative candidates will also be underfunded given the supermajority that is the Republican caucus—in both Houses.
What’s needed is excitement. Novelty. Running campaigns as has been the rule in recent years put the Democrats at a decided disadvantage. Political reporters will likely opine that Haslam is unbeatable. So get out there in the hustings and get coverage by local television and radio stations and local newspapers.
If, after the primary, there is a little excitement among the Democrats and a candidate comes forward with a little money and some credibility (hey, it could happen) then I’m sure that Hooker would step aside for the good of the party and support the party’s nominee.
But someone is going to have to generate some hope, some excitement, and raise some issues.
You can consider Hooker a placeholder. A vehicle for a protest vote. Or just someone who can get the attention of voters to help other Democrats on the ticket.
So scoff at the idea. Explain why it’s foolhardy. But I’ve got one question for you:
What’s your plan?