Big spending, negative ads bring uncertainty to GOP primary

Frank CagleFeature

Disgusted voters are unpredictable. What happens when two candidates convince the voters that their opponent is pond scum? It usually redounds to a third party.

For over a hundred years if you won the Alabama Democratic primary you were elected governor. Until 1986. The attorney general and the lieutenant governor engaged in a vicious campaign; the margin of victory was so small it wound up in court. Voters were not amused. When the dust settled, Alabama had elected a Republican named Guy Hunt. A Primitive Baptist preacher and the chief executive of one of the state’s smallest counties. Even political reporters were asking, Guy Who? The first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

I got to thinking about that race the other night watching a succession of ads from Randy Boyd and Diane Black, each uglier than the last, seemingly in a never-ending loop. Some of the charges are true. Most of them are half true. If you wonder why Bill Lee is surging in the polls, wonder no longer.

Lee and Black are in Middle Tennessee and I suspect Lee is taking more votes from Black than Boyd. But the negativity has to be hurting Boyd as well.

Lee and House Speaker Beth Harwell have talked about their records and backgrounds. Their message is more optimistic than the attack ad portrayals of their Republican opponents. Will voters be so turned off by the so-called “front runners,” Boyd and Black, that they nominate Lee or Harwell?

Knoxville attorney John Valiant assembled a group of 50 Democrats and Republicans at the Crowne Plaza last week to have lunch with Harwell. Boyd has list after list of elected officials from around the state who have endorsed him. Big donor Republicans have stepped up. But as I looked around the lunch tables Friday I saw a lot of people who have won dozens of elections. People who do yard signs, arrange door knockers, work polls and produce mailers. If I had the support of that group, hell I could get elected to Congress. I didn’t hear any good things about Boyd. The tax stuff is hitting home. Can it be that Boyd’s East Tennessee support is a mile wide and an inch deep? I don’t think Lee has done enough campaigning in East Tennessee, though he was up and down I-75 last week.

One of the mysteries of this election season for me is Harwell’s lack of traction. She got a late start because of the legislative session and some early polls had Black doing well. I think Lee getting into the mix provided another candidate for those turned off by the negativity and his outsider theme plays well these days. Perhaps years of experience in state government has become a liability since the days when House Speaker Ned McWherter ran for governor, saying he just needed a vanilla wafer and a cup of coffee and he’d be ready to govern on day one.

Short takes
  • Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has spent eight years endearing himself to the voters of Knox County – no tax increases, building schools and perpetually campaigning. I don’t think it likely that anyone could beat him in his race for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Jimmy Duncan. But the margin will be smaller than you would have thought when the race began. Between Burchett’s ex-wife and the efforts of the Duncan family to help state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, Burchett has had a hard time putting the race away. But Knox County contains the largest concentration of votes in the district and Burchett will do well here. And Matlock will not get all the anti-Burchett votes, there are other candidates. I think Burchett wins by low double digits.
  • Financial disclosures were recently filed. Tell you a secret about them. That cash on hand figures will be reduced substantially the day after the report is filed. Campaigns routinely delay paying any bills they can until the day after filing. They want the cash on hand number to be as large as possible. Sometimes staffers have pay delayed as the payroll account bolsters the cash on hand figure. So, the day after filing day there is an out flow of money to ad agencies, landlords, employees, printers and the like.

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