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Handicapping the 2010 Governor's Race -- the Republicans

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 24, 2009

The Tennessee General Assembly is only a few months old and yet politicians are already declaring their interest in running for governor in two years. While this may be unfortunate because politics will enter into legislative decisions and Tennessee faces some challenging problems, (1) politics always enters legislative decisions and (2) candidates need to begin early to raise money, build a statewide organization, hire good people, develop policies, and raise name recognition in the state. With that in mind, let's handicap the Governor's race beginning with the party with the most likely winner -- the Republicans.

What you say? I thought that the Republicans were becoming a Southern party with no national future. Well, that may or may not be true, but if you are in a Southern state, being a Republican has its advantages. Plus, Tennessee electing Bob Corker to the Senate in 2006 when the rest of the nation elected Democrats, Lamar Alexander winning in a landslide in 2008, and Republicans winning all the toss-up state senate seats to gain a 19-14 advantage and winning the Tennessee House in 2008 and it is clear that the trend favors Republicans. But which one?

In alphabetical order, let's start with Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn is laying low at this point. It has always been assumed since she was elected to the State Senate that she wanted to run for governor. And since she is the most well-known of the Republicans according to polls, she can wait longer before deciding. If she runs, she is a formidable candidate. She has the best media machine of all the candidates, can attract votes from the donut counties around Nashville (which decide statewide elections) and the strongly Republican parts Shelby County that she represents, can raise money, and has a certain appeal as the potential first female governor of Tennessee.

She faces several problems. First, is there smoke where there is fire? She is an articulate woman who has named a "rising star" by Roll Call magazine. Yet when she ran for House Republican Conference Chair, she did poorly. Does this suggest that her appeal is not deep among her colleagues? If so, what does that say about her leadership skills at home. Second, she has large staff turnover which usually indicates a problem getting along with others. Anyone remember Don Sundquist?

Next, Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons. Who? That's what I said. Gibbons has an inspirational pesonal story and a long history working for Republicans as far back as Governor Winfield Dunn (1970-74). He was appointed DA by Gov. Sundquist and has kept the job since. The DA is an important position but the position does not allow him to address broader issues that a governor would so his knowledge of state issues is unknown. His webpage mentioned jobs (through investing in roads), crime (his expertise) and education. It is early but he needs to flesh this out more.

Second, he is not well-known outside of Shelby County. This may make it difficult to raise the money and his name recognition across the state. Third, running against three (possibly four) well-known Republicans, his best hope may be that Haslam, Ramsey, and Wamp split the East Tennessee vote allowing Gibbons to win the Shelby County vote and win the a plurality. The problem with this strategy is that if Blackburn runs that she can cut into his Shelby County support since she represents that area. Moreover, voters and activists flock to those they think can win and against more well-known opponents, he is disadvantaged.

Third, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. Haslam is the Republican establishment's choice for governor. When Bill Frist declined to run for governor, his people moved behind Haslam. And then recently, Tom Ingrahm, Lamar Alexander's long time chief of staff, resigned to become a general consultant to the Haslan campaign. Alexander and Frist -- it doesn't get more establishment than that. Haslam, as the former president of Pilot Oil, appeals to the business wing of the GOP -- especially the business community in Nashville that funds most state campaigns of both parties. Plus, as a former Chair of Young Life in Knoxville, and long time elder at his local church, he probably can appeal to more social conservatives than Alexander, First, or Corker. Also as a former Chair of the Knox County United Way and Salvation Army, it is more difficult to paint him as an extremist. Furthermore, Bredeson was successful by being able to win Knox County. Haslam reduces those chances and reduces the Democrat's margin of error in other parts of the state. Finally, he comes across as a smart, moderate, problem solver. Sound like any former successful governors (i.e., Alexander and Bredeson)? The Republican establishment knows what wins in Tennessee and is sticking with the successful formula.

He does face some problems. First, he is mayor of Knoxville and that does not always go over well in East Tennessee. Second, lower name recognition but he can buy that. Third, president of an oil company does not go over well if gas prices are sky high and your net worth goes up a bunch. Fourth, he is new to elective office and needs to meet Republican activists statewide. Fourth, too many East Tennesseans running.  Haslam and his supporters would like to see Ramsey or Wamp drop out before voting begins. Fifth, too connected to the establishment. There is a lot of support for Alexander, Frist, and others but there is also a segment of the party that wants to move beyond them and choose their leaders rather than have Alexander et al annoint the next leaders.

Fourth, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. He has several things in his favor. First, he has worked the state relentless for several years trying to elect Republicans to a majority in the state Senate. He was successful in 2004 but Wilder held on with crossover appeal until 2006. These successes indicates excellent political skills both inside and outside Legislative Plaza. Second, working across the state, he has contacts everywhere in the state -- among contributors and activists. People feel beholden to Ramsey for his work and he has strong supporters in many places. Third, he has better knowledge of state policies than any other Republican because he has dealt with them longer. He can speak from experience and knowledge that others cannot.

The biggest problem that he faces is name recongition. The Lieutenant Governor is not well known by many citizens. The ones that do pay attention either love him (he won the GOP the Senate) or hate him (He took the Senate from Wilder and Democrats). With money and time, he can rectify it. but can he overcome the partisan image that Democrats, and some Republicans, will paint of him when people want legislators working together to solve these difficult problems. The other problem he faces is that he is one of three candidates from East Tennessee, the historical base of the GOP. Usually who wins East Tennessee wins the primary, that is probably not the case this year which provide an opportunity for TN to elect a non-East TN Republican.

Fourth, Congressman Zach Wamp. Wamp has toyed with running statewide for years -- whether the Senate or governor. With Republicans anticipating minority party status in the US House for the near future, this year he intends to follow through with that as shown by his announcing for the seat and dealing with a difficulty personal history (i.e., drug use when younger) to take it off the table as an issue. His advantages are that he is very articulate, can rely on support (voter and financial) from Chattanooga and East Tennessee, and higher name recognition in East Tennessee.

The problem is his past drug use, Haslam can buy name recognition, the East TN vote will be split, he can easily be attacked for the actions of the unpopular Republican congresses, and his status as an appropriator hurts him as someone who helps other members get earmarks. There is also concern about his leadership ability. Wamp was appointed to the Appropriations Committee as a freshman which is quite a coup. However, he has made enemies on Capitol Hill and not for pork barrell spending which makes Appropriators happy. With foresight that many other Republicans should have seen, he saw House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) as an albatross around Republicans due to his scandals. He talked about running against him for leader but never did. When DeLay resigned from the House, Wamp declared for Whip and did poorly. Like Blackburn, will others follow Wamp?

My prediction (for what it's worth) is that Blackburn will stay on the sidelines. She sees the race as too crowded and does not want to prematurely end her political career. The race will be between Haslam and Ramsey. Haslam has the money and establishment support to be successful. Wamp will not be able to extend his support beyond his congressional seat and will play spoiler.  Gibbons will be a minor candidate. Ramsey is the only candidate that can compete with Haslam in money and support and even with that he needs some help to get the nomination.

We'll deal with Democrats next time.