Fleischmann vs. Mayfield II? Not in Tennessee

Fleischmann vs. Mayfield II? Not in Tennessee

August 20th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga holds his wife's, Brenda Fleischmann, hand in the air during a victory party at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Chattanooga late Thursday evening after winning the 3rd Congressional District GOP primary.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

From left, Scottie Mayfield, Chuck Fleischmann

As Georgia prepares for runoffs in primary elections that didn't produce a clear majority winner, some Tennesseans wonder why their state isn't doing the same thing.

Take Bradley County resident Matt Dillard, a waste management executive who donated $5,000 to Scottie Mayfield's 3rd Congressional District campaign. Two weeks after election night, Dillard said he still can't comprehend how U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann edged his man and won the GOP primary with only 39 percent of the vote.

"There's mixed emotions about that," Dillard said.

Mayfield finished second with 31 percent, and Dillard is convinced the dairy executive's "odds would have improved greatly" if Fleischmann had been forced into a head-to-head runoff.

"It makes perfect sense," Dillard said. "Who wouldn't want to see that?"

Apparently, a lot of powerful people don't, including election administrators and state legislators whose bills and votes are required to change election law in Tennessee.

There are runoff provisions for Chattanooga city elections, but unlike about 10 states -- mostly Southern -- Tennessee has never had runoffs in primaries for state or U.S. House or Senate or for governor, experts and officials said.

"I got elected in 2004, and I've never heard it discussed in the Legislature," said state Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "My suspicion is because it's never been done here."

Fleischmann isn't the only one who benefited from a low-end plurality on Aug. 2. Gary Starnes captured a nonpartisan Hamilton County General Sessions judgeship with 37 percent of the vote, and notorious Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Mark Clayton achieved victory with 30 percent, allowing him to face U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in November.

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Timing, tradition and "voter fatigue" are the main barriers between Mayfield and another bite at the apple, Watson said. But ask Hamilton County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan why runoffs haven't gained traction, and she'll answer with one word.

"Money," she said.

The tab for the Aug. 2 primaries in Hamilton County was $245,971, she said. "[A runoff] would cost a little less. To pin me down as to how much, I can't tell you exactly."

Experts said runoff elections are the product of Southern racial politics around the turn of the 20th century. States that enacted runoffs were controlled by Democrats unfriendly to the idea of "minority factions being able to win" with a small percentage of the vote, according to Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

"Did Tennessee [refrain from runoffs] because the Republican Party was slightly more viable in Tennessee than other Southern states?" Oppenheimer wondered aloud. "Was it because Tennessee had a smaller African-American population? I don't know. But it probably played a part."

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Whatever the reason, Tennessee has ended up with loads of leaders who were unable to win a majority of their party.

Recent examples include Corker, who won a statewide Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 2006 with 48 percent of the vote; Gov. Bill Haslam, whose 47 percent GOP win eliminated former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and others from contention; and Fleischmann, whose 30 percent in the 3rd District Republican primary in 2010 foreshadowed this year's result.

Runoffs have led to unlikely winners in other states. In 1970, segregationist gubernatorial candidate and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace finished second in the governor's race to incumbent Gov. Albert Brewer.

It proved to be a Pyrrhic victory for Brewer. He didn't win a majority, a runoff ensued, and Wallace won the pivotal battle, capturing the second of his four terms in Montgomery.

In a phone interview, Mayfield was coy about whether he wished Tennessee election laws would allow him to face Fleischmann again and -- potentially -- pull a Wallace.

"I have an opinion," Mayfield said with an audible grin, "but I think it's better to leave my opinion to myself."