All of that made good campaign sense. The primary season is over, and McWherter, who had no opponent on the August 5 Democratic primary ballot and was, as he acknowledges, less than omnipresent in these parts, now faces a general election contest with well-heeled Republican nominee Bill Haslam.
That fact should bring McWherter around more often, and, as the Jackson businessman pointed out, his home is a short driving distance from Memphis, which will also facilitate the frequency of his presence here. But there is yet another compelling reason for him to spend more time in Shelby County, beginning with yesterday’s visit.
McWherter has a son, Walker, who is entering Rhodes College this fall and one major reason his candidate father was in town on Thursday was to help Walker get settled into his dorm. And as McWherter has explained several times of late, home football games in Memphis are sure to bring both himself and wife Mary Jane around.
McWherter was asked about the increasingly obvious fact that Democrats running for office in Tennessee don’t tend to feature the word “Democrat” much or at all in their advertising and other campaign materials. His own first series of ads, which present him as a problem-solver and stay clear of ideological matters, don’t use the label.
Nor are the words “Democrat” or “Democratic” likely to be seen coupled with his name in future campaign presentations, he acknowledged, in a way reminiscent of the vow of U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. in 2006 not to “go yelling ‘Democrat, Democrat, Democrat!”
“Well, I’m running now in a general election, and I’m hoping to get the votes of Democrats, Republicans, and independents,” McWherter said by way of accounting for the absence of the party signifier.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he buys into the prevalent notion that Tennessee, once upon a time a reliable part of the old Democratic Solid South and in more recent years a bellwether state, shifting back and forth from Democratic to Republican control, is now permanently Republican — a Red State, in the current lexicon.
He recalls that in the early ‘70s Tennessee seemed to be trending Republican but in the elections of 1974 and 1976 voted Democrats into the governorship and the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, where Republicans had been before.
And there was another case — 1986, when there was a governor’s race, featuring former Republican governor Winfield Dunn, who was favored, versus a vanilla-wafer-eating Democrat who was Speaker of the state House of Representatives at the time.
The Democrat — one Ned Ray McWherter, Mike’s father — won, of course, and, after serving two terms in office, became something of a state institution in his own right. As Mike McWherter, widely regarded as a serious underdog in the 2010 race for governor, recalls, “The networks were calling that an upset,” and he suggests that another one may be in the offing this year.