Tennessee Democrats seeking challenger to Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee Democrats seeking challenger to Gov. Bill Haslam

January 6th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - With less than 10 months to go before Election Day 2014, it appears that Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam may stroll to re-election.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal faces a primary fight and a well-funded Democratic challenge this fall from Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

But here in Tennessee, Haslam has no credible Democratic opponent in sight, let alone a GOP challenger.

Last week, the lone Democrat who had even thought aloud about running against Haslam, former Tennessee Regulatory Authority Chairman Sara Kyle, dashed fellow Democrats' hopes when she announced she would not be a candidate.

That came after a flurry of Kyle activity in August and early September, which was followed by months of silence. At the time, Kyle's mother, Emma "Gene" Clement Peery, was struggling with pancreatic cancer. She died Dec. 18 in Nashville.

It's unclear whether Democrats have a Plan B. Efforts to reach state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron on Friday and over the weekend by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, said the situation "is symptomatic of the problem the Democratic Party has in the state, which is you don't feel you have a very good chance."

Tennessee Democrats have been trounced in every election cycle since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.

In 2010, Haslam first won a contested GOP primary with Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey. He went on to easily defeat Democrat Mike McWherter for the governorship, which had been held by Democrat Phil Bredesen.

That year Republicans gained firm control of both chambers of the General Assembly. It was the first time the GOP had the governor's mansion and Legislature in their hands since shortly after the Civil War.

Aided by 2012 legislative redistricting and a huge fundraising apparatus, Republican boosted themselves to supermajorities -- the strength to pass any bill without a single Democratic vote -- in both houses of the Legislature. They're feeling pretty confident not only about Haslam but about picking up additional House and Senate seats.

"I think they [Democrats] are just so disorganized that they haven't yet realized they're such a minority, they need to unite to have a chance to build themselves back," said state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

McCormick thinks House Republicans, who now have 70 seats, stand a good chance of picking up five more, four from Democrats and one held by an independent.

Some Democrats earlier this year spoke hopefully about state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, running for governor, but he said no. In an interview Friday, Fitzhugh reiterated he's focused on running for re-election to his rural West Tennessee House seat.

"My responsibility is to my district and to my [House] caucus," Fitzhugh said.

But the lawmaker hopes someone runs against Haslam.

"I think that we need a candidate," Fitzhugh said. "We just have to have someone out there not only to articulate our message but to show the contrast."

Asked if he's hearing any names of would-be gubernatorial candidates, Fitzhugh said, "frankly, no."

But he said even if there is no credible Democrat running against Haslam, House Democrats shouldn't be worried. The caucus, now down to 28 members in the 99-seat chamber, is talking about picking up seats this year.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said he thinks 22 of Democrats' 28 seats are "rock solid" and "there's nothing they [Republicans] can do about them."

About six seats are "in play," Turner said, with three or four held by Democrats. He said Democrats can hold their own and eke out gains given sufficient funding.

One of problem races is the District 43 seat held by former Democratic Rep. Charles Curtiss, who resigned on New Year's Day to head a county commissioners association.

The seat, which includes Grundy County, "is one of the ones we'll have to watch," said Turner, adding Democrats can win with the right candidate. Turner also is enthusiastic about the possibility of picking up a seat or two in Knoxville and Nashville suburbs.

Dream on, McCormick said. He added that he likes the GOP's chances of winning Curtiss' seat and knocking off three Democratic freshmen -- two in Nashville and one in Knoxville.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, conceded it's going to be "another tough year for Democratic candidates."

Now the Republicans have 26 members to the Democrats' seven. Two Democrats, Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, of Jackson, and Sen. Charlotte Burks, of Monterey, aren't running again.

"Those will be tough markets for us," Kyle said of the seats, which Republicans are confident they'll win.

"The burden Democrats in Tennessee have is unhappiness with the national Democratic Party and its positions on issues that are important to voters," Kyle said, pointing to 2012. "While the rest of the country seems to be going one way, Tennessee seems to be going another."

That applies to Haslam too, McCormick said. He pointed to a Vanderbilt poll last month that found 61 percent of 840 registered voters approved of Haslam's job performance.

"I don't think anybody's beatable, but I think he'd be very difficult to beat," McCormick said. "He's got good numbers poll-wide because he's done a good job and people like him."

Democrats believe there are opportunities to hit Haslam. His family's company, Pilot Flying J Travel Centers, has been under federal investigation over alleged fraud involving fuel rebates to trucking companies. Haslam's older brother, Jimmy Haslam, runs the company and the governor has said he has had no executive role at the company since he left to run for Knoxville mayor in 2002.

The governor has come under fire on other fronts, including a state building services contract with a private firm as well as unhappiness among teachers over evaluations tied to pay and teacher licensure.

But to exploit those potential vulnerabilities, the Democratic Party needs a candidate to show up pretty soon and begin making a case, said Oppenheimer, the Vanderbilt professor.

"You don't do that, just suddenly showing up, as the general campaign starts," Oppenheimer said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.