NASHVILLE — One day after an anti-gay activist unexpectedly captured state Democrats' U.S. Senate nomination, embarrassed Tennessee Democratic Party officials denounced their new nominee, Mark Clayton, for being "associated with a known hate group."
Party Chairman Chip Forrester on Friday urged Democrats to wage a write-in campaign "for a candidate of their choice" in the Nov. 6 general election.
Clayton, vice president of the national anti-gay group Public Advocates USA, is a self-described "tea party style conservative activist." But right now, he is the Democrats' official standard bearer against U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
He won 48,126 votes — 30 percent of the ballots cast in the seven-person Democratic primary. Forrester speculated that occurred because his name was first on the ballot.
"He is a candidate who is associated with hate groups affiliated out of Washington, D.C.," Forrester told reporters. "Those groups are bigoted, and that kind of hatred is not something that will be tolerated at the Tennessee Democratic Party, and therefore we are clearly disavowing any support."
Efforts to reach Clayton, who lives in Nashville, were unsuccessful. Public Advocate USA is fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage and attacks what it sometimes calls the "homo lobby" and what it calls the ongoing degradation of morality in the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized Public Advocate USA as "an anti-gay hate group."
But in a news release Clayton distributed to state Capitol reporters this spring, the group charged the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union "long ago compromised" their original civil-rights mission.
They were "bought off by massive homosexual fundraising and cannot be trusted with other people's children," the release said.
On his Facebook page, he describes himself as a "tea party style conservative activist" who is running against a "Rino." That was an apparent reference to Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor running for a second term.
The Rino acronym stands for "Republican in name only" and is often lobbed by hard-right conservatives and tea party activists. Noting Corker easily had fended off four GOP challengers in Thursday's primary, Clayton said his candidacy "gives another shot for tea party conservatives ... to run against Corker."
Clayton said he will "fight to remove secret national ID cards from Tennessee driver's licenses," "stand up for fiscal responsibility," and work to shut down the Transportation Security Agency.
He also opposes building a "NAFTA" interstate from Mexico and will "demand" constitutional protections be invoked against drones and electronic "spying" by government and business.
He ran in the Democrats' 2008 U.S. Senate primary, hoping to run against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. He was overwhelmed by Democrat Bob Tuke.
Democrats had placed what little hopes they had of beating Corker this year on Hollywood actress Park Overall. She was given a prominent speaking role at the party's annual fundraiser in April.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said Clayton's selection among little-known candidates shows "the overall field that the Democrats were touting was weak."
He had no criticisms of Forrester's denunciation of Clayton. But Devaney did note the GOP in 2006 acted in advance to keep James L. Hart, an open advocate of eugenics, off of Republicans' 8th Congressional District primary.
"I think that showed that we vetted our candidates," said Devaney said, who again blamed Democrats' current problem with their overall weakness.
Democratic Party spokesman Sean Braisted pointed out the state GOP hadn't done such a good job itself in vetting Hart in 2004 when he unexpectedly became the party's nominee in the 8th Congressional District.
Republicans denounced Hart's positions and urged GOP voters to unite behind a write-in candidate.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...