GOP moderate prevails over conservatives yet again

NASHVILLE - It's beginning to sound a little like an old Porter Wagoner tune: another day, another dollar and when daylight comes, Tennessee Republican conservatives lose yet another statewide GOP primary contest.

So when Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam on Thursday triumphed in the GOP gubernatorial primary over hard-right rivals Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey, political observers experienced more than a little bit of deja vu.

"This pattern's been going on for many years in Tennessee (where) you have a conservative electorate but moderates tend to win Republican primaries," said Tennessee Conservative Union Chairman Lloyd Daugherty.

Haslam, a millionaire businessman whose family founded Pilot Corp., took 47 percent of the vote in last week's GOP primary. Wamp, a Chattanooga congressman who made overt appeals to religious and social conservatives, won 29 percent. Ramsey, the lieutenant governor who focused on gun-rights proponents and tea party activists, came in third with 22 percent.

Unlike states such as Georgia, Tennessee has no primary runoffs so Haslam was able to become the nominee without a majority.

Haslam now faces Democrat Mike McWherter in the Nov. 2 general election.

Daugherty, whose group rated Haslam as the least conservative among the trio, said candidates like Haslam "don't run as moderates. They run as conservatives. But moderates tend to win. Obviously of the three, Haslam was the most moderate."

Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said Haslam's winning close to 50 percent in a three-man contest with two minor candidates on the ballot was "pretty good."

But he, too, noted that in 2010 "the older part of the Republican Party in the state won another contest against the newer part of the Republican Party."

The "older part" of the Tennessee GOP, according to Oppenheimer and others, includes the GOP's more traditional, moderate-to-conservative base in East Tennessee and top businessmen who long have helped bankroll the party's efforts. In more recent decades, those elements have vied with fiscal hawks as well as social and religious conservatives.

Back in 2006, for example, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, viewed as a moderate, outspent and won Republicans' U.S. Senate primary with 48 percent against two former conservative congressmen, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary.

Eight years ago, former Gov. Lamar Alexander, a moderate who was far better known and financed, beat Bryant in the 2002 U.S. Senate Republican primary by 54 percent to 43 percent.

In that year's Republican primary, Hilleary won the GOP nomination for governor over moderate Jim Henry, who entered the contest late. Hilleary lost the general as a number of moderate Republicans' votes and money went to Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Oppenheimer noted that this year, Haslam was also "a lot better financed." Haslam's $8.8 million in total spending as of July 26 far exceeded Wamp and Ramsey's combined expenditures. He dominated television advertising. He injected at least $1.4 million of his own money into his campaign coffers.

Haslam's ability to "outspend them just as Corker could do and Lamar could do made a big difference," Oppenheimer said. "The other thing is that to the extent that the newer part of the party consistently produces multiple candidates and the older wing of the party produces a single candidate, you know, divide and conquer is still going to be the watchword."

Nashville-based conservative talk radio host Steve Gill, whose program airs locally on WPLZ-FM, said, "I'm not sure one guy would have made a difference."

But he agreed that "obviously, money makes a huge difference."

If Ramsey or Wamp had been able to match Haslam's spending, it could have been another story, Gill said.

The TCU's Daugherty said, "I know a lot of people are going to say it's because of the money and all that kind of stuff or because Zach and Ron split up the conservative vote."

But Daugherty believes "it's one of those cases where a nice guy wins occasionally. Bill Haslam is a nice guy."

Wamp spent time and money assailing Haslam's Pilot ties and the fact he refused to disclose his wealth unlike other candidates. The congressman said that in a year where everyone is running against Washington, he faced problems running for statewide office. Moreover, he has said, "at the end of the day, we couldn't influence how much money the Haslams spent; it was endless."

But he also noted that "I think had Ramsey or I, one, not run, it would have made a big difference in terms of competitiveness. But Haslam had all those things going for him. There's no sense in looking back. I'm looking forward."

Wamp repeatedly called on Ramsey to exit the contest, which the Blountville Republican refused to do.

But Ramsey said the "key" to Haslam's victory was he had "a lot more money. That's what it was."

It is "hard to compete with that kind of money, but that's fine," Ramsey said. "That's what politics is all about."

He rejected the premise that if he or Wamp dropped out, it would have produced a conservative victory.

"That wouldn't have changed anything," Ramsey said. "As a matter of fact, it may have made it worse. The person with the money would have had one person to pick on instead of two. I think he could have obliterated one."

Haslam also doesn't accept the "divide and conquer" view.

"We won 47.5 percent of the vote with everybody in there, OK? So you don't have to win that much more," he said.

Meanwhile, Gill noted that in this year's GOP primary, a number of battles were won with less than 50 percent.

"I think there's an increasing discussion" about whether to change rules and begin requiring runoffs in cases where someone wins only with a plurality, he said.

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