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Jump Ball in 8th CD

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Apr 16, 2010

                At the beginning of each basketball game, there is a jump ball. At this point, both teams are tied and have a chance of winning if each team executes their game plan.
                In the race for the Republican nomination for the 8th Congressional District, we are now in a jump ball situation. So forget about straw poll victories and concerns expressed by tea parties because the primary electorate is much larger and forget about polls because all they measure is name recognition at this point.
               With Stephen Fincher’s impressive fundraising, Ron Kirkland raising $857,600 in three months combined with his brother Robert’s independent expenditures, and George Flinn’s ability to self-fund his campaign, all three have the money to communicate their message and build their campaign organization to get out the vote. So as we move forward what are the keys to victory?
                First, who develops the better image? Since the candidates are almost identical on policy, this is a race about personality. Consequently and second, who is a better fit with the district? The 8th district is a rural district and so Fincher, a farmer from Frog Jump, can better identify with and relate to district voters. Kirkland may be from Union City but some question whether he has the appropriate bedside manner to connect with district voters. The “fit” criterion probably hurts Flinn, a Shelby County Commissioner, the most and makes this primarily a two person race. It is very unlikely that rural West and Middle Tennessee will vote for a native Memphian who does not live in the district.
                Third, who can claim the outsider mantle? Due to the anger at Washington, especially among Republicans, this is the label all candidates want to wear. While there is irony in both candidates claiming the outsider label (because one is a pillar of the establishment as a former chair of board of The Jackson Clinic and the American Medical Association and the other is the choice of the local, national, and congressional Republican establishment), it is probably a wash politically.
Fourth, who demonstrates the personal characteristics and leadership skills to prove they can be congressman? Flinn and Kirkland have the business and community experience to demonstrate this while Fincher uses his nonpolitical background as a virtue.  
                Since “fit” may be an issue for Kirkland, a fifth key, is can he win Madison, Montgomery, and Tipton Counties by large amounts? In the most recent Republican congressional primary (2006), Madison County, Kirkland’s base, provided almost 20% of the primary vote while the three combined provided 38% of the vote. Since Kirkland may “fit” better with voters in these suburban counties, he needs to win these by 55-60% to make up Fincher’s advantage in less populated rural counties.
                Sixth, for whom does Flinn play spoiler? Flinn appeals to the same voters as Kirkland and is targeting Tipton County which helps Fincher. However, Flinn has spent more time in the campaign attacking Fincher which softens Fincher’s support and indirectly helps Kirkland.
Seventh, who controls the dominant themes of the campaign? Each candidate wants to play to his advantage so if Fincher can focus voters on who is the real conservative and youthful energy, he wins. If Dr. Kirkland can focus the race on Tennessee v Washington, experience, and health care, he wins. 
                Eighth, who makes the most mistakes? Fincher has the more seasoned campaign team while Kirkland is the more seasoned speaker and has a better grasp of the issues. So Fincher will have to handle questions better than his January Fox Business News appearance while Kirkland will have to watch his gaffes (e.g., “it’s hard to unscramble the [Obamacare] egg”).
                Then there are the wild cards. Will a new issue arise that changes the course of the campaign? Will a potential FEC investigation of Robert Kirkland’s spending on behalf of his brother taint his brother’s campaign or lead to a backlash because of a perception the family is trying to buy the congressional seat? Will the House Republican campaign committee go all out for Fincher?
                Regardless, one candidate will cut down the nets on August 5th but they still have an even bigger game to win in November.

This article originally appeared in the April 16 edition of The Jackson Sun