A Look at Tennessee

Posted October 20, 2003 at 5:38pm

For aspiring Tennessee politicians, the 2004 elections are merely a hurdle on the way to 2006, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) will step down and Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) will stand for re-election. [IMGCAP(1)]

Frist’s pledge to serve only two terms has already led to intense jockeying within the Congressional delegation, which could lead to as many as three open House seats.

Reps. Zach Wamp (R) and Harold Ford Jr. (D) are all but announced for the contest, and freshman Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) would also seriously consider a run.

Even Republicans acknowledge that Ford is the likely Democratic nominee, although Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell is also mentioned. Purcell was re-elected to a second term in August.

The identity of the GOP nominee is less clear, as strong arguments can be made on behalf of both Wamp and Blackburn.

Wamp has held an eastern Tennessee district since winning it in 1994 when it was open. He has been laying the groundwork for a Senate bid for several years and increasing his travel around the state. Last Friday he made his first political foray into Memphis to make a speech and meet with key Republican donors.

Wamp has also done a solid job of stockpiling dollars for the Senate race due in part to his decision earlier this year to begin accepting donations from political action committees. Through September he had more than $730,000 in his campaign account.

Blackburn won her sprawling 7th district seat in 2002 when then-Rep. Ed Bryant (R) ran for Senate. She was the most well-known of the candidates in the crowded Republican field, due largely to her vocal opposition to then-Gov. Don Sundquist’s (R) proposed income tax increase.

Blackburn backers believe that she would begin the race with better name identification than Wamp and would benefit from representing a district that takes in the Memphis and Nashville media markets — the largest and most pricey in the state. Blackburn would begin at a financial disadvantage, however, as she showed $219,000 on hand at the end of the last month. She is also seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate against Bredesen.

Bryant, as well as former Rep. Van Hilleary (R), who lost to Bredesen last cycle, are also mentioned as possible candidates. Another intriguing possible entry into the race is state Rep. Beth Harwell, who is currently the state party chairwoman.

Of the potential open seats a Frist departure would cause, only Wamp’s Chattanooga-based 3rd district is potentially competitive between the parties.

Prior to Wamp’s 1994 win, Democratic Rep. Marilyn Lloyd held the seat for two decades. But Democratic redistricters in 2001 restructured the seat, adding five Republican-heavy counties in the far northeastern end of the district and subtracting six more Democratic-leaning counties.

As a result, the seat went from a 54 percent George W. Bush district in 2000 to a 57 percent district in 2002.

The name most often mentioned for the seat is Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R). Corker was elected in March 2001 but ran a high-profile primary race against Frist in 1994. Some GOP observers, however, believe Corker has his eye on a statewide post as either governor or Senator.

Other Republicans seen as potential candidates include U.S. Attorney Sandy Mattice, who was appointed by President Bush to the post, and former Hamilton County Republican party chairwoman Robin Smith.

State Party Chairman Randy Button (D) would be the most likely Democratic nominee in an open-seat scenario. Button, who is close to Bredesen, ran for the seat in 1994, losing to Wamp 52 percent to 46 percent.

Redistricting drew Button’s home in Roane County out of the 3rd district, however. He now lives in freshman Rep. Lincoln Davis’ (D) 4th district.

In Blackburn’s seat, the winner of the Republican primary to succeed her would likely be the de facto Congressman. One intriguing name being bandied about is conservative radio talk-show host Steve Gill (R). Gill has run twice previously for Congress in the 6th district against Rep. Bart Gordon (D).

Gill lost the 1994 race to Gordon 51 percent to 49 percent, taking advantage of the strongly Republican nature of the cycle. He returned for a rematch in 1996 and despite raising and spending more than $1 million lost 54 percent to 42 percent. Gill has since become a prominent radio personality; he was a prime mover (along with Blackburn) in rallying the opposition to Sundquist’s tax proposal.

State Rep. Glen Casada (R), who hails from Williamson County, is also mentioned as is state Sen. Jim Bryson (R).

On the other end of the district — in the Memphis suburbs — two candidates who ran in 2002 are mentioned. Former Bush-Cheney state Chairman David Kustoff, who placed second behind Blackburn with 20 percent, is eager to make another run, according to GOP sources. So is the fourth-place finisher in 2002, state Sen. Mark Norris (R). Another name in the Memphis area is state Rep. Paul Stanley (R).

In the neighboring 9th district, centered in Memphis, a Ford has held the seat since 1974, when former Rep. Harold Ford Sr. was first elected at age 29. He retired in 1996, paving the way for the then 26-year-old Harold Ford Jr. Ford Jr. pondered Senate bids in 2000 and 2002 but now appears to be all but in the 2006 race. He raised $158,000 from July 1 to Sept. 30 and has $702,000 on hand.

In the likely event he runs for Senate, a third member of the Ford family may be the chosen nominee. Isaac Ford, Harold Ford Jr.’s brother, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Memphis City Council this month, is seen as the potential heir apparent.

In his city council race, Isaac Ford was heavily backed by his father; that led Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton (D), a political enemy of the elder Ford, to work on behalf of the incumbent city councilman, who won. Herenton’s son, Rodney, an investment banker, has grown more active in Memphis politics in recent years and could run, setting up a showdown between the two feuding families.

Meanwhile, the only incumbent likely to be seriously challenged in 2004 is Davis, who won an open seat contest to replace Hilleary last cycle. Republicans believe that with Bush on the top of the ticket the Middle Tennessee district could swing back their way. The only Republican mentioned is 2002 nominee Janice Bowling, who lost to Davis by 6 points while being outspent at a better than 2-1 clip.