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Handicapping the 2010 Governor's Race -- the Democrats

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 26, 2009

Why aren't the Democrats in a more favorable position for the 2010 governor's race in Tennessee? The Democrats won the White House, have made large gains in congress the past two elections, Democratic party identification is up. All signs should be pointing upward for Tennessee Democrats. Yet, Republican Bob Corker won a US Senate seat in 2006 against Harold Ford, Jr who ran a great campaign in a toxic environment for Republicans, Lamar Alexander won a landslide reelection victory in 2008, Obama was not close in Tennessee,and Republicans took control over both Houses of the Tennessee General Assembly in 2008. These results clearly show the growing Republican nature of Tennessee and why most political professionals expect a Republican to win the governor's mansion in 2010.

So should Republicans be measuring drapes for the governor's mansion? No. Anything can happen in two years. Democratic success will depend on the economy, the success of Obama's policies, the popularity of Obama, and whether the Republican brand gets out of the tank. But the most important component is the quality of candidate. And that is where Republicans have the advantage.

But it was not suppose to be this way. The presumed Democratic gubernatorial nominee has been Congressman Lincoln Davis (D-Pall Mall). This was the expectation when Democrats redrew then Congressman Vann Hilleary's district to elect Davis in particular. Since then Davis has traveled the state and was a major supporter of Harold Ford, Jr, in his Senate campaign in 2006. Democrats were happy. Davis had a conservative voting record in congress (for a Democrat) and has obvious political skills.

What happened? The proverbial 2000 pound gorilla showed up in the form of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Nashville). With Frist still very popular in the state and his ability to sew up the Nashville money machine which funds campaigns of both parties, David saw the writing on the wall. He decided to follow the tradition of Tennessee Democrats and pursue a national career. This past fall, Davis sought and received a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. This is a seat from which he can exercise power internally in the House and is not a seat that one seeks if one usually plans to run for higher office.

Next up in the pecking order was former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell. Davis was everyone's first choice and Purcell knew that. Add Frist to the picture, and he knew that he could not compete with that. Plus, Purcell was not sure that Tennessee would choose two transplanted Yankees who became mayor of Nashville two times in a row for governor. Thus, he sought and eventually received the position as Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

That brings us back to Harold Ford, Jr. Ford has never been a true Tennessee boy. He grew up in Washington, D.C., went to Georgetown for undergrad, and the University of Michigan for law school. He ran for congress while finishing his third year of law school and won on account of his name. Ford aimed to be the first African-American president of the US and knew that he had to distance himself from his family and liberals to win statewide and launch his national career. The 2006 Senate election stopped that (as did the rise of Barack Obama). Since then, Ford became Chair of the Democratic Leadership Council and took a job with Merrill Lynch in New York. His political interests clearly fall in national politics and not in state politics.

Where does that leave Tennessee Democrats then? With candidates with potential. These individuals are not well known and have unproven political skills but can win if everything falls into place. Let's look at each of these individually and in alphabetical order.

First, State Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga. With the big names out, Berke is probably in. First elected to the State Senate in 2006, he represents a urban, suburban, and rural district so should be able to speak to all voters of Tennessee. Plus, he is not up for reelection until 2012 so he will not have anything to lose. In fact, he has everything to gain. He probably will not win this time but it will raise his profile so that if he does well, he is positioned to run for another statewide office or congress. If he runs, his focus will probably be the Democratic standbys such as jobs, environment, and education. He has an impressive resume and is an up-and-comer among Democrats but he is probably running for the future, not the present.

Second, Nashville financier Ward Cammack. Cammack is already in the race. As a successful businessmen, many Democrats like him because he can self-finance his campaign and appeal to moderates and Republicans and has a policy wonkishside. Sound like anyone we know? If not, think Phil Bredeson. He seems very interested in environmental issues and creating green jobs. That appeals to the base of Democratic Party and could appeal to East Tennessee because of the recent coal sludge accident and the desire to protect the Smokies. And he is serious as he has hired the media company that got Bredeson elected to run his campaign.

Cammack has several problems. First, he is a political unknown never having run for any political office in his life. There are questions about his policy knowledge, political skills, speaking ability, fundraising ability, etc. Second, green jobs are a great idea but they will come years in the future. What can he provide today? Plus, many Tennesseans associate green with granola and hippies which can work against him. Third, he has a history of giving to Republicans and cast his first vote ever for a Democrat in Barack Obama in 2008. That history may not go over well with Democratic activists and the Obama support may not go over well with the average Tennessee voter. Finally, he is a investment capitalists when Wall Street is not very popular. Moreover, a quick google search on his company, Equitable Securities Corporation, shows a class action suit for violating feeral and state securities laws by making false and misleading statements. Even though the case was dismissed, a competitor will make it a story which makes it a double whammy.

Third, State Senator Roy Herron (D-Dresden). Herron is currently the Senate Democratic Floor Leader and has been a rising star for the Democratic Party since his election to the House to fill incoming Governor Ned McWherter's seat. He is currently trying to boost his profile through a book tour promoting his God and Politics: How Can a Christian Be Involved in Politics? Herron has obvious skills and as a former Methodist minister and founder of Faithful Democrats, Republicans would have a hard time attacking him as a liberal.

The problem is (1) he has low name recognition and (2) he has not really had a competitive election since his election to the House in 1986. Plus, he represents a solidly Democratic, though conservative, district. Could he raise the money, build the organization, and compete at a level that he has not had to compete before?

Fourth, former state Democratic Party Chair and Knoxville realt estate developer Doug Horne. His advantage is that he could fund his campaign and as a former state party chair, he has raised large amounts of money. The main problems are whether he can move from behind the scences to the front and whether he wants to run or nor. He considered running for the Senate in 2008 but only if others would not. Even now, he is talking about getting Democrats together to find a consensus candidate. It is clear he prefers someone else. That is not the fire in the belly that Democrats need to win.

Fifth, State Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis). HIs big advantage is that as Democratic Leader, he has traveled the state to raise money and recruit candidates to run for the Senate. And since Tennessee has strong state legislative parties, his office has run many of the campaigns. That gives him insight and advantages that others do not.

Yet, he has several problems. First, the Democrats keep losing Senate seats. If he can't keep the Senate or his own Senators behind the party (think Rosalind Kurita), that does not speak well to his gubernatorial ambitions. Second, he has not run a competitive race before. His family has strong connections that helped him get elected and he represents a Democratic district in Memphis. Memphis is not like the remainder of the state and politicians from Memphis carry more baggage than those from other cities.

Sixth, country singer Tim McGraw. McGraw has expressed an interest in Democratic politics and would bring instant name recongition and the ability to self-finance his campaign. But he has questionable political skills and policy knowledge. And while Arnold Schwarzeneggar was successful, Tennessee is not California. He would probably face the same fate as country legend Roy Acuff in 1948. His comercials for his home state of Lousiana may work against him but his popularity should help him get by. The problem is that his music career is still going strong and he has demurred from running in 2010 but keeping the options open in the future.

Seventh, former State House Majority Leader Kim McMillan (D-Clarksville). She is already running and is emphaszing jobs, education, health care, and the environment. She is a well-respected insider but lacks name recognition, fundraising prowess, and the Tennessee Democratic Party is still an "old boys club."

Eighth, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the son of former Governor Ned McWherter. McWherter's name is mentioned often because he is wealthy and can self-fund his campaign and he possesses a name popular with older Democrats. He faces several obstacles. First, his name is not what it use to be. McWherter left the governor's office in 1994 and many Democrats and Tennesseans have moved on. And his name only gets him so far. Politics is about what you have done for me lately? His name gets him in the door but he has to sell himself after that. Second, running as a candidate is different from working behind the scenes and he is unproven in that respect. Third, he has toyed with running for office before. In 2008, he considered running against Lamar Alexander for the US Senate. His waiting prevented the other candidates from entering  making it more difficult in their uphill climb.

My guess is that Kyle, McWherter, and Herron will not run and the race will be between Berke and Cammack. Cammack has the edge in money and coming from Middle Tennessee. Berke represents parts of historically Republican East Tennessee. Herron would have an advantage representing West Tennessee but West Tennessee is not the base of the Democratic Party any more (its the urban areas of Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis). Whoever wins, the odds are stacked against them.