Politics » Politics Feature

How It Happened in the 8th District

In what amounted to a two-man race, David Kustoff’s late surge took him past George Flinn



A little history, of the instant sort and otherwise: In a sense, the just-concluded Republican primary race for the 8th District congressional seat might be regarded as a battle royale involving several hopefuls entertaining their last best chance at electoral politics.

The winner, former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, was making his second try for a congressional seat, some 14 years after his first one — a losing effort in the 7th Congressional District, a Republican-dominated area which then sprawled from the suburbs of Memphis to those of Nashville. 

David Kustoff
  • David Kustoff

Kustoff, a talented party adept, who had served as Tennessee coordinator for George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000, was opposed in the GOP primary that year by two other ambitious Shelby Countians, then Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor and then Shelby County Commissioner Mark Norris and, crucially, by Williamson County state Senator Marsha Blackburn, who was just then riding high on the strength of her successful opposition to a state income tax. There was a fifth candidate, Forrest Shoaf, like Blackburn hailing from the Nashville area.

The three Shelby Countians persisted in the belief that the seat was meant to be occupied by someone locally, like Memphian Don Sundquist, the outgoing holder of it who left it to successfully run for governor that year. They further miscalculated that, even if they divided up the Shelby vote fairly evenly, one of them would still have enough votes to defeat Blackburn. So they turned all their fire on each other.

Blackburn, buoyed by what amounted to a statewide reputation, demolished this mistaken arithmetic by running well throughout the district, even in Shelby County, where she finished second to Kustoff, and won the primary fairly easily.

Kustoff had few opportunities for other races after that but maintained his political viability through his appointment by Bush to serve as U.S. attorney for Shelby County, where he had a major hand in several well-publicized prosecutions, notably the Tennessee Waltz sting of 2005, which netted several Memphis Democrats on corruption charges, including powerful state Senator John Ford, whose name Kustoff dropped conspicuously this year at campaign events.

Meanwhile, West Tennessee's 8th Congressional District, which tilted heavily rural, was reapportioned following the 2010 census so as to take in a hunk of eastern Shelby County, which now contained 55 percent of the district's population. When Republican Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in Crockett County decided against reelection in 2016, Kustoff, after a dearth of 14 years, had another opportunity.

But, just as was the case in 2002, he found himself in another crowded primary field — this time with four fellow Shelby Countians: state Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, county Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood, and wealthy radiologist/broadcast magnate George Flinn.

Flinn, the most unusual perennial candidate in Tennessee political history, could and did pump prodigious amounts of his own money into his campaign — to the tune of $3 million. Kustoff and Kelsey raised well over half a million each, Luttrell roughly $300,000, and Brad Greer, of Jackson, somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000.

Helped out by veteran political operative Chip Saltsman, who had headed up former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's 2009 presidential campaign, Kustoff ran as a law-and-order candidate, focusing his advertising on fears of terrorism and what he put forth as his former record as a crime-buster. Late in the campaign, he put considerable sums of his own money into the race, giving him something of a surge in the vital last two weeks.

Kelsey had begun the race with seemingly good chances and had some support from Jackson-area political broker Jimmy Wallace to go with his southeast Shelby County senatorial constituency. But his touting of past legislative accomplishments, like sponsorship of a constitutional amendment banning an income tax and his nonstop casting of himself as a "proven conservative" apparently proved less seductive to an apprehensive public than Kustoff's viewing-with-alarm strategy. Late polling showed his support peeling away toward Kustoff.

Luttrell, whose prominence in Shelby County affairs and family relationships elsewhere in the district had made him an instant leader when he announced for Congress, saw his financial receipts lag (he shared a donor base with Kustoff). He was also plagued by a whispering campaign linking him to "Obamacare" because of his support for Governor Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee initiative and began to stagnate late in the game.

Of the other candidates, Leatherwood, whose service as a state senator was well in the past, and who had little money to run on, proved to be no factor, and Greer's chances were based almost entirely on the prospect of the Shelby County candidates carving up their vote equally.

That left Flinn as a potential rival to Kustoff, and, though the good doctor's fellow Memphians, used to a run of electoral defeats for Flinn in recent years, may have underrated his chances, his own polling, and that of Kustoff, showed him leading the pack of candidates district-wide with two weeks to go, largely on the strength of a barrage of entertaining TV commercials featuring two biddies whose mission in life seemed to be acquiring Flinn yard signs and who saw their man as a Trump-like self-funder who was above political sordidness.  

Actually, Flinn by 2016 had acquired a good deal of political experience, though mainly in losing causes. With the exception of a 2006 win to retain a Shelby County Commission seat he'd been appointed to, Flinn suffered defeats in races for, successively, Shelby County Mayor in 2002, Memphis City Council in 2003, Congress in the then rural 8th District in 2010, the U.S. Senate in 2012, and state Senate in 2014.

But, for reasons best known to himself, Flinn, having made a formidable reputation (and fortune) for himself as a pioneer of ultrasound techniques and subsequently as the impresario of a broadcast chain, continued to hanker after equivalent success in politics.

He almost got it this time around. There were stretches of the district that Flinn penetrated that nobody else could. He was the only candidate with paid media in the Paducah, Kentucky, market that covered the northern fringe of the 8th, for example. And he was the beneficiary of a mysterious organization called Power of Liberty, which produced ads attacking, in sequence, all of Flinn's four main opponents — Luttrell, Kelsey, Greer, and finally Kustoff, whose answer would come in the form of attack ads from a PAC called Win With America, which was connected to Huckabee.  

The key Win With America contribution may have been an ad which appeared with two days left in the race accusing Flinn of having supported a Democrat. The unmentioned Democrat in question was Flinn's son Shea Flinn, who had indeed once run for state Representative with his father's blessing, had later served an appointive term in the state Senate, and won two terms on the Memphis City Council before leaving to become an officer of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Whatever the reason, Kustoff's late surge finally allowed him to surpass Flinn, whom he beat by some 4,500 votes in Shelby County, nullifying what was a 2,000-vote edge for Flinn elsewhere in the district. 

• In a year in which Hillary Clinton, by winning the Democratic nomination for president, has broken one glass ceiling and may break another by beating Republican nominee Donald Trump, the political achievements of Jane Eskind, who died last week in Nashville at the age of 83, deserve special mention.

Eskind broke several gender-based ceilings herself. She was the first woman to chair the Tennessee Democratic Party, and in 1978, became the first to run for statewide office after winning the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Two years later, she became the first woman to win statewide office when she was elected to the state's Public Service Commission.

And another memorial: to Oran Quintrell, a talented former journalist and tireless political activist whose premature death was mourned by a sizeable crowd last week at the Serenity Funeral Home on Sycamore View.

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