Bill Haslam's Primary Problem

Can a nice-guy Republican (with lots of money) from East Tennessee convince the rest of the state's right-wing conservatives to vote for him?

Pivot, pocket, left, middle, right, pocket, pivot. Bill Haslam moves around a lot while he speaks.

"This week we're talking about jobs," Haslam says, addressing workers and reporters at Wayne's Glass Company in Murfreesboro, Tenn., swinging his arms to his middle, hands pointed outward directly in front of him for a moment before moving them to the side. "Right now the state's looking at 10.6 percent unemployment. I personally think it's a little higher than that." Pivot on heels. "There's some people who have quit applying and there are some who are what I call underemployed, who have taken lesser jobs than what they had before. So I think the next governor has to be not just good but great at bringing jobs in."

Left, middle, right, pocket, pivot, repeat.

It isn't the type of movement you see in a lot of other politicians—that way they teach you in public speaking classes to do a karate chop or place fist-to-palm on your really visceral points, or insert a short walk from time to time in order to establish a faux-equal dynamic with your audience. Haslam is more of a constant-limited mover. Limited because he rarely employs any of his limbs in full. Instead, he concentrates entirely on slight movements of his forearms (which he swings jerkily in a sort of cross-formation) and his heels (upon which he pivots at semi-regular intervals).

His slight-but-constant gestures might be described as "nervous tics," but in Haslam, there's a dance-like, rhythmic predictability to his nervousness.

After this short speech and Q&A, Haslam's still got a few more places to hit in Murfreesboro before attending a fund-raiser in Sumner County, and despite his characteristic chipper mood, he looks just a tiny bit worn out. He's had a busy campaign schedule in late October, visiting 16 counties in a week and employing a grueling door-to-door strategy, doing several small appearances every day instead of one or two large ones.

In many respects, the Haslam campaign for governor is going pretty well so far. As of the summer reporting period, he had already raised nearly $4 million—about three times what his closest competitors, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, had raised—with more than a year to go before the Republican primaries. (According to a press release from the campaign last Friday, that total, though unofficial, is creeping toward the $5 million mark.) Throughout the campaign, he's been identified by traditional media, bloggers, and even Wamp and Ramsey as the Republican to beat.

Despite all the positive buzz about the campaign, you do sense a subtle hint of desperation sometimes as you hear Haslam speak. It seems appropriate that he often emphasizes that he believes the governor's primary role is "the salesman for the state." Instead of a syrupy-voiced, preacherly Tennessee politician, he looks and sounds like someone who, though mostly confident, uses his swings and pivots as a diversionary tactic, covering the nagging feeling that he may not make this next commission—which, of course, he may not.

So maybe Haslam's fidgetiness is betraying something beyond resigned fatigue here. He got some bad press recently for choosing not to attend the annual Reagan Day dinner in Knoxville, held by the Tennessee Conservative Union. His absence led TCU chair Lloyd Daugherty to say to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that he doesn't "think there's anybody in the conservative movement in that campaign." It's a sentiment that echoes the recent theme in attacks on the Knoxville mayor, who lately has been accused by rivals of lacking in conservative convictions and credentials. In an October article in the Memphis Flyer, Wamp spoke even more bluntly, calling Haslam a "squishy conservative" and an "empty suit." And late in September, he was criticized by Wamp and Ramsey after he (sort of) supported Knoxville City Council's decision to uphold the city's ban on guns in public parks. (Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, running as a "tough on crime" candidate, openly supported such bans.) He was also taken to task for supporting a 35 cent property tax increase in Knoxville in 2004 from $2.70 to $3.05 (note that this year's approved tax rate was $2.81 and later lowered to $2.46). And, of course, Haslam was briefly affiliated with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, before declaring his run for governor and subsequently joining the NRA. Last July, Davidson County GOP Deputy Chairman Matt Collins, who's connected with the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, publicly declared that Haslam and Wamp were unfit to govern the state, citing their wavering support for Second Amendment rights.

Throughout all of this, the Haslam campaign has taken what can fairly be characterized as the "high road," concentrating its rhetoric on the state's fiscal health, education, and job creation.

"People want you to speak to their values and say, ‘What do you believe?' But, ultimately, I think people say this election is going to be about jobs and dealing with a very difficult budget," Haslam says. "Even in a primary, people say these are the real issues. That is the feedback I'm getting from people."

To a casual observer, it would appear that Haslam—renowned "aww, shucks" type that he is—is a near-ideal politician for the general election season. But with the general election still nearly a year off, the state primary on Aug. 5, 2010, is what matters to the campaign now, or at least it should. Traditionally, that would mean it's time to cozy up to the conservative base, the people most likely to vote in that election. But Haslam's reputation, at least compared with, say, Ramsey's, is that of a political moderate, an image his campaign hasn't (yet) done a whole lot to counter. Given the fervently rightward swing the GOP appears to have taken across the country and particularly in this state, it remains to be seen whether the Tennessee Republicans of 2010 are going to vote for the nice-guy mayor from East Tennessee.


Haslam campaign consultant Tom Ingram, the guy who helped design Haslam's door-to-door, on-ground strategy, works from an office on top of Nashville in the Fifth Third Building downtown. He's a 30-plus-year veteran of politics, having worked with Bob Corker, Fred Thompson, and most notably Sen. Lamar Alexander, for whom he's worked on-and-off through two races for governor, two for Senate, and one for President, as well as serving as Alexander's Chief of Staff from 2003 until earlier this year. (Knoxvillians may remember Ingram as the president of the Knoxville Chamber Partnership from 1998 to 2002, during which he was one of the driving forces behind the ultimately failed proposal to build a $100 million planetarium here—the cutely-if-hokily named "Universe Knoxville.")

A calm counterpoint to the giddy, energetic Haslam, Ingram sits down, still, and speaks in smooth, even paragraphs. It's not like he's completely relaxed, though.

Somewhat controversially, Ingram—through his consulting firm the Ingram Group, which also does business with the Haslam family's Pilot Corporation—is working for the Gaylord Entertainment Company, which runs the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Gaylord is currently in the midst of a campaign to stop (or limit) Metro Nashville Government from using public financing to build a $300 million hotel for its proposed downtown convention center; it has been accused by city tourism boosters of simply trying to jam up the works on the entire project, which could eat into its own business. And Ingram, who has been speaking to Mayor Karl Dean on behalf of the company, has not officially registered as a lobbyist.

Ingram's simultaneous connection with the Haslam campaign and Gaylord's efforts have earned him and the Haslam campaign some criticism. Why would the campaign want to be connected to what is turning into a major local firestorm? Besides, hasn't Haslam been championing the use of public money to finance the Metropolitan Plaza in Knoxville? Of course, as Ingram points out, Knoxville's financing plan relies on Empowerment Zone funds and payment-in-lieu-of-tax financing, possibly TIFs, rather than direct city funding, unlike what may happen in Nashville.

"We fully understand that there needs to be a hotel," he says. "If that's a publicly funded hotel, it has to be constructed so as it won't unfairly compete with the private hotels there. Government should only do what the private sector can't do."

Therein lies, of course, the rigidly fiscally conservative sentiment that Ingram says he sees in his gubernatorial candidate—that he believes is the key to this race. And, as far as he's concerned, it's one that's resonating, albeit only with the political junkies who are paying attention already.

"At this point, and it's still very early, you are hearing people here, in Nashville, people in state politics, mention Bill's name the most often as the frontrunner," Ingram says.

Despite what his overflowing coffers indicate, Haslam, the mayor of a medium-size city, may have come into this race at a slight disadvantage as far as name recognition goes.

"Bill is getting around the state as much or more than any other candidates, and doing as many or more events than any other candidates, and doing very well at them," Ingram says.

However, in a poll of 500 likely GOP primary voters conducted last summer by the Tarrance Group on behalf of the Wamp campaign, Haslam was tied for third at 33 percent in name recognition with Gibbons. Wamp had 53 percent and Ramsey 41 percent.

"I'm not going to get into the specifics of that poll, and we're not spending any money on polling yet because it's far too early," Ingram says, though the campaign has identified its plans to use Virginia-based firm Ayres, McHenry, & Associates, also used by Alexander's campaigns and Haslam's mayoral campaigns, for its future polling. "I would be very surprised if any of the four of them had significant name recognition at this point. Even Mr. Wamp. Congressmen are not very well known statewide. None of them has done enough yet to have really any impact at this point."

Ingram will say that perhaps, when it comes to Middle Tennessee and specifically the 12 counties that make up the Metropolitan Nashville Area—which counted for almost one-quarter of the statewide Republican votes in the last presidential primary—Ramsey may have a slight, but only slight, advantage because of his position as the lieutenant governor.

However, as Dr. Jon Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and an expert in state politics, points out, none of the Republican candidates is actually from the middle of the state. Even Ramsey, who works in the capital but represents Blountville, would probably only be familiar to people who follow state politics.

"I think the Middle Tennessee area is particularly important because it's the one area that isn't really covered by any of the candidates as far as name recognition," Geer says, speaking from Cambridge, Mass., where he's working for a semester at Harvard. "I don't think any of the big three candidates has any particular advantage right now. They're all credible candidates by any standard. They're all likely to raise reasonable amounts of money. I suspect that the most important thing is the message they put out."

But sometimes, getting that message out can be difficult—especially if the intended audience has other issues it wants to address.


Attorney Judson Phillips is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and polite. That's a little surprising, because, on top of his day job as a Nashville criminal defense lawyer—specializing in DUI, according to his website—he's also the ringleader of a group of thousands of the country's last, or at least latest, angry men.

"I am the president of Tea Party Nation," Phillips says. "At least that's what people call me. God only knows what they call me behind my back."

Over the course of the past year, the Tea Party movement has become the most visible protest group in the country. Tea Party protests in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta have drawn anywhere between 7,000 (if you're watching MSNBC or reading blogs) and 80 billion (if you're listening to the radio, watching Fox News, or reading other blogs) people, all with the objective of "taking the country back." From whom is up for debate and probably depends on your personal politics.

In any case, Phillips claims that Nashville-based Tea Party Nation is the largest individual Tea Party group in the country, with a committed membership of about 4,500 people, most of whom are in Tennessee. The group recently announced that it will be holding its national convention in February at the Opryland Convention Center. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is the scheduled keynote speaker.

"We plan to be very involved in the governor's race," says Phillips, adding that they'll be using the group's Internet presence as well as its media-friendly rallies to help get out the conservative vote. "I'm not sure that we will be making any formal endorsements, but I think you'll see that our group will probably gravitate toward a particular candidate."

He's not sure who that candidate will be quite yet, though he has a feeling it will be Ramsey, who recently has joined in two Tea Party-approved efforts: the state sovereignty movement and the Tennessee Firearms Freedom movement. Both are based on legislation passed by the State General Assembly this session. Both seek to limit federal power in the state.

"I think he got a lot of capital with conservatives for that," says Phillips, who has also seen significant support for Gibbons (though Phillips is not sure about his position on gun rights) and Wamp (who, Phillips believes, is being insincere in his appeals to conservatives) among members of the far-right.

"What I'm hearing is that Bill Haslam is considered to be a Republican in Name Only, a RiNO," Phillips says, citing his involvement with the Bloomberg group (and subsequent "flip-flop") and his political connection to Alexander (along with whom Haslam just got behind State House Speaker Kent Williams' bid to rejoin the Tennessee GOP after being ousted for conspiring with House Democrats).

Haslam campaign consultant Ingram takes issue with that characterization.

"Listen, no one is going to out-conservative us," Ingram says. "Mayor Haslam supports the Second Amendment, he's pro-life, he is pro-small-government. He's against raising taxes. The other campaigns simply can't out-conservative us."

Ingram says the perception that Haslam is less committed to conservatism, to the extent that it exists, results from Ramsey and Wamp's "pandering" to far-right bloggers and their ilk. It's a strategy that both he and Geer say will not yield real results.

"I know that Mr. Wamp and Mr. Ramsey are going to go after Mayor Haslam for some of the positions he took as mayor," Geer says. "That's only natural. I would be surprised if, at this point, it carried any weight in the long-term, though."

Phillips, however, says he doesn't see how Haslam could earn back the trust of the far-right wing of the GOP, and it could mean a split from the party if he gets the nomination.

"Since we're not getting any interest from Democrats, I think if we see the Republican nomination going to a moderate, we're going to be looking very closely at third-party candidates," he says.

Of course, there's another side to it. Being perceived as a fiscally conservative moderate in a Tennessee gubernatorial election is not necessarily a bad thing, says Freddie O'Connell, host of Nashville progressive radio talk show Liberadio. Case in point: Phil Bredesen, a moderate Democrat who won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2006.

"I think most people who are not partisan activists prefer pragmatic governance," O'Connell says. In January, O'Connell predicted that Haslam would be the next governor, and he'd do it by running as the GOP's answer to conservative Democrat Bredesen. "I think one of the reasons Bredesen was able to win 95 counties so handily is that he exhibited a relatively non-ideological, pragmatic style of governance. I think that that's the kind of style—from the people that I know in the Knoxville area who have spoken highly of Mayor Haslam's tenure—that he would deliver to the governor's mansion."

"I don't buy that argument," Phillips says. "I don't hear anyone emphatically saying, ‘I want a moderate.' People say, ‘I want a conservative' or ‘I want a liberal.'"

Lately, it may be the former, at least judging by recent indicators: a Gallup poll from last month showing that, nationwide, self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a margin of two to one (40 percent to 20 percent, with 36 percent moderate); another Gallup poll released in August, showing 43 percent of Tennessee respondents identified as conservative, 37 percent as moderate, and 17 percent as liberal; the 2008 election of a Republican majority in the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction; the recent victory of Republican Pat Marsh over Democrat Ty Cobb in a special election in state House District 62, a traditionally Democratic district; and of course, the popularity of the Tea Party movement in Tennessee.

"Imagine it was 2006 and the race was open, Bredesen wasn't running. Back then, I think Gibbons could have won," Phillips says. "He has a strong base in West Tennessee, and if he were able to pick up just a few Middle Tennessee voters, he could have won. Now, with the way the political landscape has changed, I think that if a candidate like Ramsey really gets on board with this state's conservatives, things that traditionally win elections—a geographic advantage, campaign funding—those things won't matter, or won't matter as much. That's a scenario where I could see Ramsey winning it."

Still, O'Connell is skeptical.

"It remains to be seen whether I'll be proven wrong—as to whether what I describe as wingnut Republican politics where it's much more about leveraging controversial social issues rather than exhibiting pragmatic governance—can win in 2010," he says.

"I think [running in a primary] takes some getting used to, when you've had the luxury of not having had to be particularly political in your governance style," O'Connell continues. "When he's been able to focus on just being a quality executive for the city of Knoxville, I don't think that the first thing that is coming to mind is, ‘How do I respond to questions on abortions? Or how do I respond to, when I was the mayor of the city of Knoxville, fighting crime was one of my top priorities, and I had to make some common-sense choices about how I was going to tackle gun issues?'"


As far as clear evidence that there is a surge of right-wing activism goes, the "2nd or None" Rally at the Outpost Armory in Christiana, Tenn. seems pretty good. Not just that it's happening at all, but that it, or something like it, is the new norm for weekend gatherings in towns across the state.

The word "town" might be overstating Christiana's credentials, though. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the geographic area near exit 89 on I-24—a few exits south of the bright lights of Murfreesboro—is a sparsely populated near-blank spot called "Zip Code 37037," in unincorporated Rutherford County.

Putting 1,000 extra people into a place like 37037—population 4,191—for a day is sort of the exact same thing as holding a Million Man March to the Last Ever Olympics here, such is the shock to its local equilibrium. So, there's a half-mile long traffic jam on Saturday, Oct., 16 when a thousand people simultaneously show up at Epps Mill Road just east of the interstate.

That inconvenience can be partly attributed to the Rutherford County Sheriff deputies directing traffic, who are standing so uncomfortably close to traffic that it can't possibly go faster than 10 miles per hour. Your first reaction is to be angry that every time more than 40 people show up at something in a tiny place like 37037, the police have to go and freak out about it. But then again, maybe it's not so bad they've come to today's event.

Hoards of politically motivated gun enthusiasts are crowded around the fortress that is the Outpost Armory and restaurant, a barn-shaped but cathedral-sized overflowing font of steel, wood, powder, rage, reactionary politics, and fluffy biscuits. It's ostensibly a gun "store" but, given the abundance of the inventory, it's really more of an unactualized nation-state.

"Guns are awesome," a 20-something man actually says as he passes between a pile of very large bullets and a pile of very, very large bullets.

Chris Barrett, the organizer of today's event—the full name of which is "2nd or None: A Celebration of Liberty"—told local media that he didn't want to "do a negative, scary rally." Judging from the content of the event, this apparently meant keeping all the traditional trappings of a gun rights rally—the Rebel flags and Confederate uniforms, the 12-foot-long assault weapons displays, the people carrying shotguns strapped to their backs as they walk through the food lines, the poor kid from the local JROTC being forced to stammer through a speech about target ranges that he obviously did not write, and the never-ending line of wild-eyed, vitriolic activists screaming into a microphone—but adding a petting zoo and a bounce house so the kids can come out, too.

The new "not scary" looks strikingly similar to what used to be called "unimaginably terrifying." If this is for real—if it represents a real ideological shift among GOP voters—it may be especially terrifying for Republican moderates in Tennessee.

Still, there is a long way to go in this election, and it's still early to say whether or not the Tea Partiers' influence will be made apparent in August—and, if so, whether a candidate who appeals to Tennessee's far-right activists will have any viability in November. For Bill Haslam, getting ever closer to the Republican primary and receiving ever more flack from that side of the party, embracing his image as it currently stands—relatively moderate, non-committal on socially divisive issues—might be a well-calculated risk. Haslam's two biggest competitors, Wamp and Ramsey, have both run hardliner campaigns and may well split that conservative vote, giving Haslam a more moderate plurality in August.

Nevertheless, given the state of things right now, it's still a risk, and it could explain why Haslam is so full of nervous energy.