Cooper: When governors run for senate

Cooper: When governors run for senate

September 30th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The last time a term-limited, sitting Tennessee governor chose to run for an open United States Senate seat, it didn't turn out so well for him.

That was 1964, when Democratic Gov. Frank Clement, two years into the office of a single four-year term (before serving consecutive four-year terms was permitted), chose to toss his hat into the ring.

Term-limited current Gov. Bill Haslam is now pondering such a possibility after U.S. Sen. Bob Corker announced earlier this week he would not run for a third term in 2018.

In 1964, Tennessee was a solid one-party state, so whoever won the Democratic primary was almost assured of becoming governor. Clement, at the time, was not an unknown to voters; in fact, he may have been too well known.

Just 32 years old, he had challenged incumbent Gov. Gordon Browning in the Democratic primary in 1952 and won. After easily defeating the Republican in the general election for the then two-year term, he became the nation's youngest governor.

Although voters approved a constitutional amendment during his term to allow Tennessee governors to serve single four-year terms, Clement was allowed to run for re-election, which he did in 1954. He defeated Browning in the primary and then cruised to re-election, gaining further stature two years later when he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention.

He supported Buford Ellington, his campaign manager and commissioner of agriculture, for governor in 1958 and returned to the practice of law. However, he came back on the scene in 1962, running again for governor and winning fairly handily in a three-way race (though there were more votes against him than for him).

When then-U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver died in office in August 1963, Clement could have appointed himself to replace the Chattanoogan. He didn't, instead appointing a caretaker senator, Herbert S. Walters. But he did get into the race for the remaining two years of Kefauver's unexpired term in 1964. So did popular five-term U.S. Rep. Ross Bass, D-Pulaski, who attacked the sitting governor for raising the sales tax during his first term as governor.

Clement got only about 40 percent of the vote in the primary.

After Clement, only three other term-limited Tennessee governors had the opportunity to run for open Senate seats. None chose to do so.

In 1984, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, two years into his second term, declined to run for the open seat left by the retirement of Republican Sen. Howard Baker, for whom Alexander had been a former legislative assistant.

In 1992, when Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter was two years into his second term, a scenario similar to Clement's came up. Then-Sen. Al Gore had been elected vice president under Bill Clinton, leaving McWherter the option to appoint himself to the office.

Though a popular governor, the longtime state legislator and former speaker of the state House did not do so, instead appointing his deputy governor, Harlan Mathews, who had served on the staffs of Browning, Clement and Ellington, as a caretaker senator to serve until the 1994 election.

McWherter, as Clement did, might have opted to run for the remaining two years of Gore's term, but he did not. Instead, actor and former U.S. Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel Fred Thompson was elected in what proved to be a national Republican landslide — opposing the actions of then-President Bill Clinton — and won a full term in 1996.

In 2002, then-Gov. Don Sundquist declined to run for the seat of the retiring Thompson. Sundquist, during his second term, had proposed in a tax-reform plan a state income tax to augment what he felt was unstable sales tax revenue. The plan went nowhere, though, and he was for the rest of his term dogged by the proposal.

Alexander, who'd declined a Senate bid 18 years earlier, was elected and now is in his third term.

Haslam, though, doesn't suffer from the overexposure of Clement, a potential landslide by the other party (at least yet) or blame for an unpopular proposal. He is popular, can point to tax cuts, increased education funding, free community college tuition, increased road funding and budget surpluses. He is personally well-heeled and would have plenty of monetary backing.

And in increasingly red Tennessee, a Republican is the odds-on favorite to win a Senate seat in 2018.

What it will come down to for Haslam, who would likely clear away several suitors to the office should he run, is whether a Washington life would fit him. Like Corker, he prefers making a difference, and Corker surely had to weigh his present and future ability to get things done and the current partisanship in the capitol in making his decision.

So, unlike Tennessee governors over the past half century, the Knoxvillian probably can write his ticket into Washington. But will he?

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