By Michael Davis
With roughly nine weeks until the Aug. 3 Republican U.S. Senate primary, Bob Corker has saturated television airwaves with campaign ads and sent direct mail to potential voters across Tennessee to boost his name recognition.
The former Chattanooga mayor is spending a lot of money to communicate with voters and win a contentious three-person GOP primary, political strategists said.
"His best hope is that he can just club everyone else over the head by outspending them," said John Rowley, a Democratic political consultant in Nashville.
But Mr. Rowley said opponents Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant are attempting to undercut Mr. Corker's message by saying he is not conservative enough for the party faithful who vote in the Republican primary.
"He's allowed Hilleary and Bryant to tag team him and define him as not conservative enough," Mr. Rowley said.
Nashville-based Republican consultant Darren Morris said Mr. Corker is "doing everything right right now." Mr. Hilleary and Mr. Bryant, two former U.S. House members, will not have enough money to compete with the former Chattanooga mayor through traditional advertising, he said.
However, both the Hilleary and Bryant campaigns, which have less money to spend, have used their campaign e-mail lists to criticize Mr. Corker. They also send news releases to news organizations in hopes of generating free coverage.
Mr. Morris said the name recognition Mr. Corker is striving for is "broad" and not very "deep" —; meaning his challengers easily can cut into his favorability through negative attacks.
"That type of name ID can be chipped away," Mr. Morris said.
Mr. Corker, Mr. Hilleary and Mr. Bryant are locked in a spirited race for the Republican nomination in the campaign to replace Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is not seeking re-election.
The winner is expected to face U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., in the Nov. 7 general election.
Corker campaign manager Ben Mitchell said three recent television ads represent a series of spots in a planned $1.6 million TV campaign set to run through mid-June. Mr. Mitchell said the TV and direct-mail campaigns are part of a plan to communicate Mr. Corker's conservative record.
But the Hilleary and Bryant campaigns say Mr. Corker, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2005, is spending money to mask a less-than-conservative record on issues such as abortion.
"By the time primary voters walk into the voting booth on Aug. 3, they’ll know the real story about Bob Corker," Hilleary campaign manager Jennifer Coxe said.
Both the Hilleary and Bryant campaigns say Mr. Corker supported abortion rights when he ran in 1994 for the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Corker has said he was opposed to abortion then but felt that it was not a government issue. He has said that he now opposes abortion rights.
Bryant campaign spokesman Andrew Shulman said Mr. Corker's record is not favorable to conservative voters.
"Bob Corker's going to need to spend all those millions of dollars that he's spending right now on direct mail and TV and radio ads in an attempt to cover his liberal record," he said.
Mr. Rowley, the Democratic consultant, said the two former congressmen should have higher name recognition than Mr. Corker in part because both ran statewide campaigns only four years ago. Mr. Bryant lost to Lamar Alexander in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2002, and Mr. Hilleary lost later that year to Democrat Phil Bredesen in the general election for governor.
Comparatively, Mr. Corker lost 12 years ago in the Republican U.S. Senate primary for the seat Sen. Frist holds.
Another plus for Mr. Hilleary, of Murfreesboro, and Mr. Bryant, of Jackson, is that both are seen as more conservative than the former Chattanooga mayor, Mr. Rowley said.
"Bryant and Hilleary can get outspent by a million or two and still win just based on the fact that they're more in line with the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party," he said.
Mr. Morris, the Republican political consultant, said Mr. Hilleary and Mr. Bryant soon must begin an aggressive media campaign to counter Mr. Corker.
"If they don't start full force towards mid-June, they're going to be in trouble," he said. "Corker's going to be able to continue building on that favorable name ID."
E-mail Michael Davis at email@example.com
CAMPAIGN WAR CHESTS
Through March 31, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Corker had a fund-raising advantage over his two main GOP challengers, Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant.
Corker: More than $4.2 million cash on hand
Hilleary: More than $1.17 million cash on hand
Bryant: More than $1.07 million cash on hand
Source: Federal Election Commission