Is Trump era bringing end to the Howard Baker Party?

Frank CagleFrank Talk

What do these gentlemen have in common: Howard Baker, Winfield Dunn, Lamar Alexander, Fred Thompson, Don Sundquist, Bob Corker and Bill Haslam?


  • They are Republicans who won statewide races in Tennessee over the last 50 years.
  • They are a somewhat interlocking group of colleagues, friends and mentors who have run Republican politics in the state. Call them the Howard Baker Party. Alexander worked for Baker and Dunn. Thompson worked for Baker. Corker roomed with Haslam’s brother, Jimmy, in college.
  • With the possible exception of Sundquist, they are or were very wealthy gentlemen able to rustle up a cocktail party of friends, fraternity brothers and acquaintances in Signal Mountain, Sequoyah Hills, Belle Meade and Germantown to kick start their campaigns and telegraph to the rest of the big donors that the race was wired and this was the winning horse to bet on. The usual $400,000 take was seed money until the donor list got cranked up and fund-raising wizard Kim Kaegi swung into action dialing for dollars. A Venn diagram of the donor lists for most of these gentlemen would show all the circles on top of each other.
  • Some of these fellows talked about being conservatives, like Fred, but all of them were right of center if not middle of the road moderates. Corker paid lip service to cutting the federal budget, though nothing ever happened. Sundquist presided over a TennCare program that put Obamacare to shame.
  • On the good side, the men overall have governed well. On the national stage, the state has a reputation of being led by sensible pragmatists in the Howard Baker tradition.

When Alexander leaves office next year none of these gentlemen will be players in state politics. The question in this and the next election is whether the Howard Baker Party is done for or whether it will survive. Will more conservatives step forward (i.e. Marsha Blackburn) to break up the party within the party?

The Howard Baker Party is currently putting all its chips on Bill Hagerty for the U.S. Senate to continue its influence. They tried to clear the field for Hagerty. Haslam tried to keep Dr. Manny Sethi, a Vanderbilt trauma surgeon, out of the race. But Sethi didn’t take the hint. He didn’t get a copy of the golden Rolodex.

In mid-December Alexander joined with U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri to host a fund-raising breakfast for Hagerty at the tony Monocle Restaurant in Washington, D.C. The restaurant isn’t open for breakfast but has a private dining room for such events. Tickets ranged from $500 to get in up to $5,000 to be a sponsor. Hagerty worked with Blunt in the Mitt Romney campaign for president, Hagerty being national finance chair for Romney and Blunt the congressional liaison to the Romney campaign.

In U.S. Sen. Blackburn’s race against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, the conservative Blackburn racked up margins of 60 to 70 percent in rural to mid-sized counties. Bredesen got a good vote in the big four counties that contain Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. But Blackburn didn’t merely carry her counties, her margins gave her a double-digit win.

In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate next year, Hagerty should do well in the Big Four. As a Republican establishment candidate, a former economic development commissioner for Haslam and a Nashville venture capitalist, he should be warmly received. The question is whether Sethi, who grew up in Coffee County, can rally the more conservative small to mid-sized towns and counties like Blackburn was able to do. Will Hagerty play in Hancock County?

Hagerty will have the money, and big city media will likely concede him the race early. Dr. Manny will have to work county by county. The overlooked factor is this: Alexander is retiring because for the first time his election was not a done deal. He also watched Corker look at the Trump-loving electorate in the state and decide to go to the barn. If these two experienced incumbents didn’t have the stomach to face the state’s increasingly conservative electorate again, crowning Hagerty may be a little premature. Hagerty’s campaign kicked off with a Trump endorsement branding him the conservative in the race. Hagerty’s job now will be to convince the voters that Trump really does favor him rather than just endorsing Alexander and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s choice.

Rebranding: The Babylon Bee, a satirical website like The Onion, except that it’s funny, prompts this observation: Given the politics of the Democrats running for president Julian Castro shouldn’t have dropped out, he should have just changed his first name to Fidel.

Virtual gun expertise: I don’t have any problem with state Rep. Andy Holt’s new law allowing people who want a gun permit to qualify by taking a test on line. I would just add that they should only be allow to shoot guns in on-line video games.

Frank Cagle is a former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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