The Tennessee Titans

GOP Senate Primary Full of Heavyweights and Likely to Be Expensive

Posted February 16, 2005 at 6:17pm

Former Republican Rep. Van Hilleary is planning to enter the race to replace retiring Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in 2006 and could make a formal announcement within the week.

In an interview Wednesday, Hilleary said his interest in a bid was piqued by a 10-year reunion of his 1994 Congressional class.

“That wasn’t the catalyst, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

A Hilleary candidacy would further crowd a Republican field that already includes Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, former Rep. Ed Bryant and state Rep. Beth Harwell.

On the Democratic side, 9th district Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is the odds-on nominee although state Sen. Rosalind Kurita is also expected to run.

Corker has been by far the most active candidate in the race, seeking to quickly consolidate financial support behind his candidacy and distance himself from the rest of the field.

Corker traveled to Washington, D.C., this week on official business but is no doubt also using the trip to capitalize politically on his staggering financial showing in the final three months of 2004.

During that time he brought in more than $2 million — a record for so early in a cycle. Roughly $1.5 million of that money came from Chattanooga and Knoxville, the twin hubs of eastern Tennessee.

Eastern Tennessee will provide roughly half of the total votes in the Republican primary — by far the most of any geographic area in the state.

The list of Corker contributors is not only long but also filled with a who’s who of Republican establishment figures.

Thomas Frist Jr., the brother of the Senate Majority Leader, donated $1,000 to Corker, though the Senator will be neutral in the contest; $2,000 came from Mercer Reynolds, the national finance chairman of President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Mike Tuffin, a Republican lobbyist with APCO Worldwide and close observer of Tennessee politics, said that given Corker’s financial might, the race will be among the other GOP candidates to see who emerges as the alternative to the Chattanooga mayor.

“Corker is clearly in this to stay,” said Tuffin. “It’s going to be Corker and someone else.”

The candidate that eventually emerges will largely be determined by fundraising as Bryant, Hilleary and Harwell fight to show they are the choice of donors not already on the Corker bandwagon.

In his 2002 loss to now-Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), Hilleary raised and spent approximately $7 million; that same cycle, Bryant — in a losing primary challenge to now-Sen. Lamar Alexander — raised and spent $1.6 million, roughly one-quarter of which was transferred from leftover funds in his House account. Harwell just recently stepped down as chairwoman of the state Republican Party, a position which, in theory, gives her a statewide fundraising base.

“There is not enough money for all three of them,” Tuffin said. “By the end of the year we’ll know who [the anti-Corker] is.”

Given his demonstrated fundraising ability and his statewide name recognition, Hilleary seems the best positioned to challenge Corker for the nomination.

In a survey released by his campaign earlier this month, Hilleary led Corker 41 percent to 11 percent in a head-to-head matchup; the former 4th district Congressman also led a four-way field with 31 percent followed by Bryant at 18 percent, Corker at 8 percent and Harwell at 2 percent.

Hilleary described the poll as part of the process of making a decision on the contest; “it came out pretty well,” he observed.

He added that even if the lesser-known Corker “spent every penny [of the $2 million] it would just about get him to where I am on my name identification.”

And in a preview of the race to come, Hilleary predicted that Corker will use much of his money to deflect attention from the fact that he “raised taxes through the roof” during his term as mayor.

Hilleary’s path to the nomination is complicated by the presence of Bryant — a close personal friend during their time in Congress with a similar conservative ideological profile.

Earlier this year the two men seemed to agree that only one of them would ultimately run for the Senate, a deal that now appears to have fallen by the wayside.

“Neither one of us has given the other veto power over his decision,” Hilleary said.

Bryant has already filed the paperwork to run and said he is in the race regardless of what Hilleary ultimately decides to do.

“I am in that Senate race and as I told him if he is going to run he needs to have a three- or four-person strategy,” Bryant said Wednesday.

Bryant argued that because of his previous Senate bid, Republican voters in the state associate him with the Senate while those same voters think of Hilleary more in the gubernatorial mold.

“There are still a lot of people out there that would like to see Van Hilleary in the governor’s race,” he added.

Given Bredesen’s current popularity and immense personal wealth, Hilleary clearly believes a primary struggle for the Senate is the more winnable race at this point.

Brad Todd, who works for National Media Inc. and has long served as a consultant to Hilleary, dismissed the idea that the race is anything but wide open.

“There is no such thing as primaries that aren’t competitive in Tennessee right now,” he said. “It is wishful thinking to think the race is wrapped up 20 months out.”