A Tale of Two Senate Seats in Tennessee

Jockeying to Succeed Frist Has Begun

Posted November 15, 2004 at 5:00pm

Long before the 2004 election ended, the political jockeying to fill Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) seat began.

With Frist showing no signs of backing away from his two-term-limit pledge, his is the only Senate seat in the country that will definitely be open in 2006.

Already two Republicans — Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and former Rep. Ed Bryant — have formed committees to allow them to raise money for the contest; several other GOPers confirmed they are considering the race, including former Rep. Van Hilleary and Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

The Democratic race is much more cut and dried.

Both national and state Democratic strategists pine for a candidacy by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), elected in 2002 and up for a second term in 2006.

“If Phil is not at the top of everybody’s list, they need to re-evaluate their list,” said a Democratic operative with strong Tennessee ties.

Bredesen, however, seems uninterested in such a bid; of late he has emerged as a possible 2008 presidential candidate assuming he wins re-election in 2006.

With a Bredesen candidacy unlikely, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) is the odds-on nominee, though Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell (D) has not ruled out a run.

“Bredesen is a .5 percent [possibility of running], Harold Ford Jr. is 99.5 percent and Bill Purcell is 8.5 percent,” said a Democratic consultant who has worked in the state.

Regardless of the party nominees, Senate Democrats see the 2006 race as a one of their last, best chances to reverse severe losses in the South over the past decade.

In the 2004 election alone, Democrats lost five Southern seats previously held by their party — all in open-seat contests.

In the previous cycle Democrats failed to pick up any of the four open Southern seats where Republicans were retiring, a list that included Tennessee.

In that race, now-Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) faced a stiff primary test from Bryant but a less serious challenge from then-Rep. Bob Clement (D) in the general election.

Alexander won 54 percent to 44 percent.

Alexander’s decision to run in 2002 curtailed the efforts of many ambitious Republican politicians, all of whom are taking a long look at the race this time.

Corker, who was elected to his current post in March 2001, is the furthest along in the process.

He has already begun to line up fundraisers close to Frist and Alexander in hopes of showing that he is the candidate of the political establishment in the state, a process potentially complicated by his nasty 1994 GOP primary against the Republican leader.

Corker’s lead fundraiser, Kim Kaegi, has been heavily involved with the efforts of Alexander as well as former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn). She also raised money for Hilleary’s failed gubernatorial bid in 2002.

Though Corker was first out of the blocks, he was followed closely by Bryant, who sent a letter to “friends and supporters” on Nov. 4 informing them of his likely candidacy.

“While I feel it is too early to make such a formal declaration, I today have authorized the amendment of my corporate documents from the 2002 campaign — to update these in preparation for a 2006 campaign,” Bryant wrote.

In his first campaign for Senate, Bryant ran as the conservative standard-bearer, hoping a low-turnout primary would deliver him a victory over the better-known Alexander.

Bryant, who had held the suburban Memphis 7th district for eight years, accused Alexander of supporting higher taxes and even made an issue of the former governor’s trademark plaid shirt — “Don’t be plaid, be solid for Bryant,” was the tagline on his ads.

After a double-digit primary loss, Bryant quickly tried to heal any potential rift with Alexander, perhaps with an eye on a future run.

Bryant goes as far as to quote his “friend Lamar Alexander” in his letter to supporters.

If Bryant remains in the contest, it seems likely that Hilleary, currently a lobbyist with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, will take a pass.

“I would not look forward to a race against my good friend Ed Bryant,” Hilleary said in an interview last week.

Hilleary and Bryant were elected to the House in 1994 and left that body in 2002 to embark on statewide bids.

Hilleary lost to Bredesen 51 percent to 48 percent in a race largely defined by whether the state needed an income tax to fix its budget shortfall.

As a result of his gubernatorial defeat, Hilleary is the best known of the potential Republican Senate candidates, according to a September poll conducted by The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.

Roughly one-third of poll respondents had a favorable opinion of Hilleary; no other GOP candidate had a favorable rating higher than the teens.

“I think a poll would show me 15 or 20 percent ahead of the pack if it was taken today,” said Hilleary, who expects to make a final decision on the race in the next few weeks.

The X-factor in the state is Blackburn, who is currently weighing both the 2006 Senate and gubernatorial races.

Blackburn won Bryant’s old 7th district in 2002, riding a wave of support among conservatives for her vocal opposition to the income tax, a stance that put her in direct combat with then-Gov. Don Sundquist (R).

“We have a pretty good statewide network going through the days of the state income tax battle,” Blackburn said, adding that she is currently in discussions with the people who have urged her to make a Senate bid.

Blackburn seems the most likely candidate to receive the blessing of Frist, although it is almost certain that the outgoing Senator would not jeopardize his own future presidential ambitions by publicly endorsing a candidate.

Blackburn’s chief of staff is a transplant from Frist’s office, and her daughter once worked for the Majority Leader.

One Republican source with ties to Blackburn added that the two know each other well from the Nashville philanthropic scene.

Fundraising remains a major point of weakness for Blackburn, though she had a respectable $443,000 on hand as of Oct. 13.

The Democratic choice is much more clear-cut with the very real possibility that Ford could avoid a serious primary challenge.

Ford’s office chose not to comment for this article, but the four-term Congressman has spent much of the past two years touring the state and ramping up his fundraising machine.

He had $1.1 million in his House account as of Oct. 13, all of which could be directly transferred to a Senate race.

Although Democratic observers acknowledge that Purcell, term-limited out of office in 2007, is looking to run statewide, most believe he will take a pass this time.

“Given 2002 when Clement ran, there is a strong sense that whether or not [Ford] is the best candidate, now is his time,” said one Democratic consultant.