Two of five Tennessee Senate Democrats say Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is on a short list of Dems they say could win the governor's seat once Gov. Bill Haslam leaves office.
Democratic Sens. Lee Harris and Jeff Yarbro said Thursday during a meeting with Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters that Berke and two others have a better shot at winning the state's top job than any die-hard Republican candidates who come along.
Harris, the Senate minority leader from Memphis, said statewide voters don't tend to favor "rabid Republican" candidates. And he expects state Republicans to race in that direction during primaries.
"It almost seems like it's a race to see who can throw Haslam under the bus fastest to prove their bona fides," Harris said.
That gives Democrats an opportunity, he said.
"[If] you get a sensible leader on the Democratic side — Andy Berke is somebody with a track record, for example, of leadership, and a record of success and somebody who knows how to work with a broader audience — then I'd bet on Andy over an extreme Republican," Harris said.
Berke was the state senator for District 10 before he became Chattanooga's mayor.
Yarbro, who represents part of Nashville, said Berke, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillann are all seen as effective leaders.
"You see these people who, in their communities, they are seen as community leaders who solve problems. They happen to be Democrats, but I think people view them as leaders who are getting things done," Yarbro said.
And Harris thinks Democrats stand a good chance of gaining the gubernatorial seat. Tennessee is near the bottom of the list of national rankings for education and health care, he said.
"I think a Democrat who proposes a set of solutions that promises to take us to the top half [of national rankings] in these important categories is going to find a really ready audience," he said.
And Yarbro said Tennessee's deep, dark-red reputation is "a little overstated."
Historically, he said, moderates on both sides of the aisle are the ones who win statewide elections. When the rest of the country went to the GOP in the early 2000s, Tennessee elected Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, he said. And he added that Haslam has always been a middle-of-the-road Republican.
"The Howard Baker wing of the Republican Party has continued to be the ones that won statewide elections," he said. "I think this is a commonsense, small 'c' conservative state."
But Republicans say Democrats may be a bit optimistic.
State GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes said Democrats won't have much to campaign on.
"If you look at the record of accomplishments that our leaders have put out and stack them up against theirs, we feel very confident that we will keep the governor's mansion in the next few years," he said. "I don't think any of those candidates are household names across the state."
Berke's financial disclosures don't indicate he's making any strong gubernatorial moves, but he could be weighing options.
The last state campaign finance filing Berke posted was in February 2013, when he moved $122,310 from his old state Senate campaign to his mayoral campaign.
Hamilton County Election Commission records show Berke hasn't raised a dime since January 2014, but he has paid a combined $43,200 to Global Strategy Group, a public affairs firm with offices in New York; Washington, D.C.; Hartford, Conn.; Denver and Los Angeles.
And Tennessee campaign finance rules prohibit Berke from using any of the $273,119 left in his mayoral campaign account toward a state race.
Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said Friday that Berke was unavailable to speak because he was preparing for today's memorial service for the five servicemen killed in the July 16 shooting at a joint Navy-Marine facility on Amnicola Highway.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.