Cooper: Berke sounds like a candidate

Cooper: Berke sounds like a candidate

October 7th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's Twitter criticism of Republican senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn Thursday seems to be an indication of his interest in the 2018 Senate race.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

If Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke decides to run for the United States Senate in 2018 — and a negative tweet about a potential opponent's candidacy Thursday probably ramps up those chances — he doesn't have to look back too far to the last time when Tennessee had an open governor's race and an open Senate race.

That was 2002, when Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor and Republican former Gov. Lamar Alexander was elected to the Senate, where he still serves.

Unless someone already declared for re-election in 2018 changes plans — and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who said last week he would not run for a third term, had already filed his Statement of Candidacy with the Senate secretary — Tennessee will be the only state with an open Senate and gubernatorial seat.

That is likely to mean more national media coverage and more money poured into the state by the Democratic and Republican national committees and more advertising purchased by third-party organizations.

In other words, it could get ugly.

The candidates already declared also indicate a potential first for the state when it has open governor's and senator's seats, and that is for a woman on the Republican side to face a man on the Democratic side.

It's early yet — 13 months from the November 2018 election — but Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, U.S. Rep. Diane Black and state Sen. Mae Beavers, all Republicans, are running for governor, and on Thursday U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, also a Republican, said she would be a candidate for the seat Corker is vacating.

On the Democratic side, no formidable female candidates have announced their intention for either seat. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is the presumed front-runner for the party's gubernatorial nomination, and James Mackler is the only announced candidate in the Senate race.

The only woman ever elected to be the Tennessee Democrat or Republican party's nominee for governor or senator is Democrat Jane Eskind, who ran against former Sen. Howard Baker in his final senatorial campaign in 1978. Baker won easily, but Eskind built up enough name recognition to win a Public Service Commission seat in 1980, the first woman to win a statewide office. She later made unsuccessful primary runs for governor in 1986 and Congress in 1987.

Before 2002, Tennessee last had open seats for governor and senator in 1994. Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter was term-limited, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Harlan Mathews had been appointed only as a caretaker for his seat after Democrat U.S. Sen. Al Gore was elected vice president in 1992. In the 1994 election, in a Republican sweep across the country, U.S. Rep. Don Sundquist was elected governor, and actor/lawyer Fred Thompson was elected to the Senate.

Before that, 1966 was the last year when the state had open Senate and governor's chairs. In that election, the state chose a Republican — Baker — for the Senate for the first time in 100 years. One other Republican had served — Newell Sanders from 1912 to 1913 — but he had been appointed to office.

That year, Democrat Buford Ellington was elected governor to the second of two non-consecutive four-year terms he would serve.

Since the last Democrat was elected the Volunteer State's governor — Bredesen in 2002 — and the last time one was elected a U.S. senator — Gore in 1990 — the state has tilted Republican.

That makes the Democratic Party's chances difficult in 2018, but open seats are always easier to win than attempting to roust incumbents. In the past 50 years, U.S. Senate incumbents across the country have won from 55 percent to 96 percent of the time. But in the past 36 years, never less than 75 percent have won, and usually even more.

So Berke would have an uphill climb — though smoother with Gov. Bill Haslam declining to run — but he seemed willing to jump into the fray Thursday when he tweeted, following Blackburn's candidacy declaration: "Instead of someone who proudly talks about being outside the mainstream TN really needs a US Senator who is focused on progress for the middle class — jobs, wages, healthcare and education."

We don't think the mayor would feel the need to respond to one Republican's candidacy were he not preparing to mount a campaign. What would be the upside? Why intentionally dis a candidate who potentially has the possibility of becoming one of the state's two U.S. senators while you are still mayor of Chattanooga?

Berke denied any interest in running for higher office during his re-election bid earlier this year. When one of his opponents produced documents that he believed indicated such a run, the mayor laughed it off.

"We appreciate the opportunity to have a little bit of humor in the middle of the campaign," he said. "This desperate attempt at a negative attack is what's wrong with politics."

Time will tell whether Berke enters the race, but we sense that he senses an opportunity.

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