Skip to main content
ABC News
Tennessee Primary Preview

The next cookie on the primary platter is Tennessee, whose unusual Thursday election features a competitive GOP gubernatorial contest and a host of wild-and-wooly congressional primaries.

These include the nation’s most expensive House primary (GOP TN-8), a primary where the Club for Growth accidentally directed readers of a mailer to a phone sex line (GOP TN-3), a primary where a white Jewish incumbent has earned the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus in a campaign against the African-American former mayor of Memphis (Dem TN-9), and a primary where Sarah Palin delved into a crowded GOP field in a staunch Democratic district to endorse her latest “Mama Grizzly” (GOP TN-5). And all that fun doesn’t even include America’s latest viral video sensation, Republican gubernatorial candidate Basil Marceaux.

First, some basics: Tennessee has open primaries, but is also the rare southern state without a majority-vote (or in North Carolina, a 40%-of-the-vote) requirement for party nominations, which will be a significant factor in a number of crowded primary contests.

Tennessee is also a state with a strong system of in-person early voting, with a state-sanctioned 15-day window that begins twenty days out and ends five days before the actual election. In the last midterm primary in 2006, 43% of the ballots were cast early (2% by mail-in absentee ballot). The official statistics for this year show 14% of registered voters having already cast ballots, which could wind up being about half of the total turnout. A lot of the theatrics in Tennessee races over the last few weeks probably involved efforts to influence early voters.

The Volunteer State has been relatively balanced in state elections (the current governor, term-limited Phil Bredesen is a Democrat; the state senate is controlled by Republicans, and the evenly-balanced House is led by a renegade Republican Speaker elected with the votes of Democrats), but hasn’t had a Democratic U.S. Senator since 1994, and has been tilting notably red in recent presidential elections (John McCain won here by a 57-42 margin).

This state also has a strong tradition of regionalism (the three stars on the state flag represent East, Middle, and West Tennessee), which has often been a major factor in statewide political races. In the marquee GOP gubernatorial primary, all three major candidates (Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, from northeast Tennessee) are from the east, which has given a major strategic advantage to Haslam thanks to his superior financial resources, allowing him to appeal to the rest of the state via television ads. By mid-July, Haslam had raised $8.7 million, some of it self-funded (he is from the family which owns the Pilot chain of travel centers). Wamp had raised 3.9 million, and Ramsey weighed in at a bit over two million.

There has only been one public independent poll of this race, by Mason-Dixon in the third week of July, showing Haslam at 36%, Wamp at 25%, and Ramsey at 20%. But the perception all along has been that it’s Haslam’s race to lose. Both Wamp and Ramsey have sought to challenge Haslam’s conservative credentials, mainly by talking about his father’s involvement in the last effort to introduce an income tax in Tennessee (still a sore subject in Tennessee Republican politics, since the failed income tax campaign was led by the state’s last GOP governor, Don Sundquist), and also accusing him of trying to buy the election with oil-company money.

Wamp, long a darling of the Christian Right (he’s a longtime resident of the C Street compound run by the shadowy evangelical conservative group The Fellowship Foundation, made famous by fellow-residents Mark Sanford and John Ensign), has lent his campaign a distinctly religious flavor. But he gained national attention recently by suggesting that Tennessee might have to secede from the Union if Congress does not repeal health reform legislation (he later recanted the secession talk, but still said fighting federal power would be a major focus of his governorship).

Meanwhile, Ron Ramsey (note: Tennessee Lt. Govs. are elected by the state senate, not voters) has heavily focused on his A+ rating from the NRA, holding campaign events at firing ranges. Like Wamp, he received some recent derisive national attention when he waded into a controversy raised by 6th District GOP congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik over the construction of a mosque in the middle Tennessee college town of Murfreesboro. In an interview, Ramsey suggested that First Amendment protections might not apply to Muslims because it was arguable that Islam was not a religion, but a “nationality, way of life, or cult.”

Down the stretch Wamp has taken to pleading that anti-Haslam conservatives unite behind his candidacy on grounds that Ramsey is unelectable, but right now Haslam is the odds-on favorite. That seems to be the assumption of certain Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter (son of popular former governor Ned McWherter, and the last candidate standing after a series of rivals withdrew from the race), who’s been taking a few shots at the Knoxville mayor while otherwise concentrating on raising money.

BTW, for all his national notoriety, internet sensation and would-be traffic-stop abolitionist Basil Merceaux is a perennial candidate who won’t get many votes beyond the ranks of a few mischievous crossover Democrats.

Tennessee’s House primaries are quite a spectacle. In Wamp’s heavily-Republican 3d District, the contest has turned into a nasty fight between former state GOP chairman Robin Smith and self-funding attorney Chuck Fleischmann. There’s a pretty interesting back-story in this race. Fleischmann’s campaign manager is former TN GOP chairman Chip Saltsman, who ran Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in 2008. Saltsman also ran for RNC chair in 2009, and probably wasn’t pleased when Smith endorsed SC’s Katon Dawson for the post. In any event, it’s been a tough race, enlivened when the Club for Growth sent out a mailer attacking Fleischmann’s background as a trial lawyer, and then included a phone number for further information that turned out to be a phone sex service. A third candidate, Bradley County sheriff Tim Gobble, has tried to position himself as an alternative to the combatants, but trails them badly in fundraising. A Club-for-Growth commissioned poll conducted on July 12 showed Smith up over Fleischmann by 22 points.

Two other hot GOP primaries are in the districts of retiring Blue Dogs Democrats Bart Gordon (TN-6) and John Tanner (TN-8). In TN-6, two state senators, both standard-brand conservatives, Diane Black (chairman of the Senate Republican conference) and Jim Tracy, were the presumed front-runners, but then former county commissioner Lou Ann Zelenik threw some of her own wealth into the race and as noted earlier, exploited the Murfreesboro Mosque controversy to get free media. She shares a geographical base with Tracy, and has probably cut into his support; an internal poll released by Black in early July showed Black with 41%, Zelenik with 22%, and Tracy with 20%.

The Democratic primary in the 6th features two young decorated war veterans, Bret Carter and Ben Leming. Carter has a fundraising edge, but Leming’s been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and a long list of former state Democratic chairmen. Though the 6th (once represented by Al Gore) has a long history as a Democratic bastion, McCain beat Obama there by 27 points.

In the 8th, the Democratic candidate is veteran state legislator Roy Herron, who dropped out of the governor’s race to run for the House when Tanner announced his retirement. The Republican primary was supposed to be dominated by the nationally-recruited farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher. But two wealthy self-funded candidates, Shelby County commissioner George Flinn and physician Ron Kirkland, jumped into the race and have turned it into a very expensive slugfest. Fincher’s under attack from his rivals for accepting federal farm subsidies over the years. Flinn is an admitted carpetbagger who lives outside the district, and has also been hammered for operating a website (shades of J.D. Hayworth!) encouraging applications for stimulus dollars. A reported $5.2 million–$3 million by Flinn alone–have been spent by the candidates in this primary, not counting $1.3 million spent by Kirkland’s brother as an “independent expenditure,” making this the most expensive House primary in the country so far.

The Nashville-based 5th district, represented by Blue Dog Jim Cooper, isn’t supposed to be competitive (Obama carried the district by 56-43), but no less than eleven Republicans are running for the opportunity to test that hypothesis. It’s really difficult to figure out how this primary will turn out. Contractor David Hall has released an internal poll showing him romping over the field, with businessman and home-school activist Jeff Hartline running second and Sarah Palin’s pick, attorney CeCe Heil running third. Hall and Hartline are the best-financed candidates; as of mid-July, both had spent over $200,000 with the rest of the field not breaking six digits. But Heil will undoubtedly benefit from the attention provided by Palin. Her other advantage is her clever decision to recast her background in entertainment law as equipping her to be a “constitutional lawyer” who can fight to defend the Constitution in Congress (other Republican attorneys, including the infamous “trial lawyer” running in the 3d District, should pick up on that maneuver). Whoever wins will be an underdog against Cooper.

Finally, in the Memphis-based 9th district, Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen is facing a primary challenge from former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Like Cohen’s 2008 opponent Nikki Tinker, Herenton is making no bones about his claim that the district requires an African-American to represent it in the House, and as with Tinker, it looks like the racial appeal will backfire. Cohen has been endorsed by President Obama, by his most famous African-American predecessor, Harold Ford, Sr., and was given a campaign contribution by the Congressional Black Caucus. Cohen should win big.