Politics » Politics Feature

No Longer Local

Two nationally tinged Tennessee races contradict an old Tip O’Neill dictum.



When history looks back at the 2010 gubernatorial race of Mike McWherter, the Democrats' nominee for Tennessee's highest administrative post, it may treat his campaign more seriously than the voters this year are likely to, if the polls are to be trusted, and more so indeed than has McWherter himself — whose efforts, to put it kindly, have been on-again/off-again.

A telling moment in the campaign year came in last week's third televised gubernatorial debate, initiated locally from WREG-TV, News Channel 3. Late in the proceedings, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, the Republican nominee, boasted the frequency of his own appearances in Memphis (pegged at 55, the same number, ironically, that Haslam's main GOP rival, U.S. representative Zach Wamp, had claimed for himself just before the August 5th primary) and then chided McWherter for not even having a headquarters in Memphis.

McWherter quickly protested that he did have a local headquarters. "It's in Whitehaven," he said, and he'd be glad to serve Haslam some "milk and cookies" if the Republican chose to wander by. Of course, as McWherter went on to explain, he was having to share that headquarters, a modest, somewhat hard-to-find storefront in a South Memphis mall, with other Democrats running locally — the idea being that Democrats didn't have the big bucks that Republicans did and certainly not the kind of bankroll that Haslam has mustered for this year's election.

All that is true enough — though it hasn't always been the case and surely wasn't when outgoing Governor Phil Bredesen was the Democrats' main man.

Granted, Haslam, a scion of the Pilot Corporation (not Pilot Oil, as the candidate pointedly noted in one of his TV encounters with McWherter), is one of the most well-heeled candidates in Tennessee history. He had raised just short of $10 million before beginning to tap his own resources some weeks ago, and now he is well north of that milestone figure.

McWherter, a prosperous Jackson beer distributor, is not exactly a piker, and he, too, has had to pony up out of his own pocket, but his total receipts to date amount, at best, to something less than a fifth of what Haslam has had at his disposal.

Much of this disproportion is owing to the differential between the two candidates' resources to begin with. Much also has to do with the longer duration and intensity of Haslam's fund-raising efforts. Then there's the historical fact that Republicans do better — both for votes and for money — with the more affluent classes (a circumstance that, once upon a time, figured mightily in Democratic campaign rhetoric).

But, finally, a lot of it has to do with the simple and well-documented fact that Republicans are selling better than Democrats this year with ordinary folks.

How else to explain the predicament of state senator Roy Herron of Dresden, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 8th District, which comprises most of Northwest Tennessee, an almost exclusively rural and small-town area? Down to earth, in every sense of the word.

Some months ago, it seemed that Herron, a serious figure on Capitol Hill for decades and one of the more personally charming and skillful politicians around, would have to be favored against Republican Stephen Fincher, a Crockett County mega-farmer and member of a well-known family of gospel singers.

Fincher had emerged from a viciously competitive Republican primary against two physicians, George Flinn of Memphis and Ron Kirkland of Jackson. Each of the three had done his best to cast the other two as either dupes of President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or secret sympathizers and perhaps even outright collaborators with those national Democratic figures.

That GOP primary drew national attention as the most expensive in the nation; it was certainly one of the nastiest.

And yet Fincher emerged from his ordeal with an edge over Herron, and, all these months later, with Judgment Day just around the bend, he has managed to maintain and even expand that lead — which hovers at 10 percentage points in two recent polls.

Also ominous for Herron is the fact that Fincher, a political unknown who was recruited by state and national Republican leaders last year to run against incumbent Democratic congressman John Tanner (who subsequently read the political tea leaves and decided to retire), has accelerated his fund-raising in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Herron, who up until now had managed to stay within financial reach of his opponent, has hit a potential snag.

And therein lies a cruel paradox, one faced by numerous Democrats in Tennessee and elsewhere in an unkind campaign year — one which seems to have reversed a famous dictum attributed to the late Tip O'Neill, longtime Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"All politics is local," O'Neill is credited with saying. This year, however, the reality is otherwise. In 2010, all politics seems clearly to be national. McWherter may be sharing a headquarters facility with other Democrats, but he isn't featuring the party's name in his campaign paraphernalia or advertising.

Nor is Herron, who began his race with a TV commercial which presented him as "a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy." That was on top of GOP-like campaign rhetoric emphasizing Herron's opposition to big spending.

The candidate's ultimate move in that direction came last week, when Herron took the fateful step of declaring that, if elected, his vote for House Speaker would go to neither Democrat Pelosi nor Republican John Boehner, the Republican House leader from Ohio. Both, Herron said, were too "extreme."

This step took Herron over a line. Whether they acknowledge it during their campaigns or not, nominees for congressional seats are counted on to provide votes for their party's approved leadership during reorganization at the beginning of new congressional sessions.

Virtually simultaneously came word that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had funded several of Herron's hard-hitting attack ads against Fincher, would suspend its financial efforts in several congressional races — including Herron's — that no longer seemed winnable to the DCCC.

Though Herron suggested that the national party's action was a response to his declaration of independence, there was considerable doubt as to the chicken-and-egg sequencing of the two actions. "It's either a cause-and-effect thing or a very strange coincidence. Draw your own conclusions," Herron said in Memphis on Tuesday.

Whatever the case, Herron is, for better or for worse, on his own — soldiering on with attacks on Fincher's questionable loan to his own campaign of $250,000, previously borrowed without collateral from a bank, or noting his opponent's apparent ignorance of the fact that portions of Memphis (Frayser and Raleigh) belonged to the 8th District.

Both these issues could be expected to resonate in a locally focused race. But that may not be the kind of race Herron has on his hands. "My opponent wants to run against a woman from California or an African American from Illinois, but it looks like he's afraid to run against a country boy from Tennessee," Herron ventures gamely.

• A fresh battle has started with early voting for the general election of November 2nd, and all indications are that the new war was going the same way the old one had. Namely, Republicans are rushing to the polls in droves, and Democrats being decidedly less urgent about it.

That was the pattern throughout the early-voting period of July, and that's what determined the outcome on August 5th, not the many bungles committed by the GOP-dominated Election Commission (some admitted, some not).

In August, a hotly contested three-way gubernatorial race had ramped up the Republican vote, as had the measurable urge among a goodly number of normally Republican voters to cast a ballot in the 9th District Democratic primary against former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

Consolidation — which has galvanized suburban voters who oppose a referendum to establish a Metro form of government — seems to be the lightning rod this time around.

Election Controversy (cont'd):


Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini (standing, right) met his critics at a Monday night event sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the Hooks Main Library. Among those questioning the Commission’s conduct of the August 5 election was Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who argued that Opti-Scan voting machines with paper-trail capability – authorized by the legislature in 2008 but not implemented by state election authorities -- might have obviated the problems experienced in August.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment