Cooper: When governor's race was a sprint

Cooper: When governor's race was a sprint

August 6th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

When former Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn ran in the 1970 Republican gubernatorial primary, he started his campaign for the early August election in late April.

Photo by Erik Schelzig

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With Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black's entry into the race for Tennessee governor in 2018 last week, the field is likely set for what is expected to be the most combative and most expensive GOP primary in state history.

A year from now, we'll know who emerged from what — with the inclusion of a congresswoman (Black), the state speaker of the House (Beth Harwell), the state's former economic and community development commissioner (Randy Boyd), a powerful state senator (Mae Beavers) and a wealthy businessman (Bill Lee) — is expected to be a clash of titans.

The race will be a far cry from 1970, when the Republican primary and ultimate general election winner, Memphis dentist and former Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Winfield Dunn, entered the race just months before the August primary.

"If we had known all of the obstacles we'd face as the campaign unfolded, we probably wouldn't have had the courage to undertake it," he said years later. "I decided in April of 1970 to be a candidate. Well, that was a little bit ludicrous because the primary election was in August and here I was, a complete unknown."

In that era, Republicans usually were also-rans. One hadn't been elected Tennessee's governor since 1920. But the worm was, in fact, turning.

Republican Howard Baker had been elected a United States senator from the state in 1966, and a Republican, Bill Jenkins, was in the middle of serving one term as the speaker of the state House.

However, Jenkins was the first GOP speaker in 86 years and would be the last for another 28 years.

The Tennessee governor's seat had been held since 1953 in alternating terms by Democrats Frank Clement and Buford Ellington. Indeed, Clement announced in late 1969 his intention to succeed Ellington again but was killed in an automobile accident shortly afterward.

At the time, the state governor could not serve successive terms. State law was amended in 1978 to allow governors to serve no more than two successive four-year terms.

Since then, Republican and Democratic governors have alternated in doing just that — serving two four-year terms. If the Republican Party has the strength it appears to have gained in the Volunteer State over the last 10 years, 2018 could break that streak if a GOP winner is elected to follow term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Dunn was the first of his party in the modern era, but he was no shoo-in. In fact, the 1970 field looked a little like the party's contingent for 2018. It included Jenkins, the aforementioned speaker of the House, Claude Robertson, the former chairman of the state Republican Party who had allegedly "locked up" the supporters of U.S. Sen. Baker, Hubert Patty, the party's 1962 nominee for governor, and Maxey Jarman, a millionaire industrialist.

Jarman, according to information in the Tri-Star Chronicles on the Tennessee State Library and Archives website, had earlier suggested Dunn support him in the 1970 race and then Jarman would support him in 1974. His theory was that a candidate from West Tennessee (Dunn) and a candidate from Middle Tennessee (Jarman) in the primary would cinch the election for an East Tennessee candidate (Jenkins, Patty or Robertson). Dunn refused.

A Chattanooga newspaper report after a Dunn appearance in Johnson City less than two weeks before the election analyzed that Dunn may have the charisma, Robertson the political base and Jenkins the backing of state legislators, but Jarman had the money and Tennesseans wanted their vote "to count."

Despite his lack of name recognition, criticism that included the catchphrase "Dunn Who?" and steely opposition from East Tennessee Republican U.S. Rep. Jimmy Quillen, Dunn won the primary. Then, with Maryville lawyer Lamar Alexander as his campaign manager, he defeated businessman John Jay Hooker in the general election.

A newspaper report several weeks after the August primary said Dunn's "victory over Maxey Jarman has been rated as one of the top political upsets in recent history."

If it was an upset, it was the last GOP one in primaries that preceded Republican gubernatorial elections in November. Eventual Govs. Alexander, Don Sundquist and Bill Haslam all had opponents — several substantial — but none of their primary wins was considered an upset.

Unlike 1970, when Dunn's sprint to his primary win took just over three months, the GOP field is all but set a year out. We'll have a whole year of hearing about Boyd's run across the state, Lee's tractor trek across the same expanse and the possibility of one of three women becoming the Republican Party's first female nominee for governor and the state's first woman chief executive.

Aren't we lucky? Let the marathon begin, but we wish it were still a sprint.

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