Cooper: GOP clash mindful of '74 Dems

Cooper: GOP clash mindful of '74 Dems

May 5th, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Former Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, shown leaving a federal courthouse after a judicial proceeding, won the 1974 Democratic primary with less than 23 percent of the vote.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

With three months to go before Tennessee's Republican primary for governor, none of the big four candidates seems ready to throw in the towel.

If the well-financed quartet of U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and businessman Bill Lee hang in until Aug. 2 in the hopes of replacing term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, the eventual winner may have as little as 25 percent of the vote before taking on the Democrat primary winner — who will have had to spend considerably less time and money — in November.

This scenario reminds us of the 1974 Tennessee Democratic primary for governor when seven candidates of considerable name recognition vied for an open seat.

They were seeking to succeed Winfield Dunn, the first Republican to be elected the state's governor in 50 years.

But while the GOP had been emerging in the state, 1974 looked to be a Democratic year. Despite his claims that he was "not a crook," the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, appeared to be more and more caught up in a scandal that covered up a 1972 break-in by campaign operatives at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.

Tennessee Democratic primary voters ultimately would make their selection on Aug. 1 as the noose tightened on the president, who would resign eight days later.

Each of the Democrats felt he had just enough of a constituency to put him over the top. The competitors were Ross Bass, a former U.S. congressman and U.S. senator; Ray Blanton, a former West Tennessee congressman who had been the party's losing candidate for U.S. Senate in 1972; Jake Butcher, a millionaire Knoxville banker; Hudley Crockett, who had been a news anchor, former press secretary to Gov. Buford Ellington and runner-up in the 1970 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate; Franklin Haney, a millionaire Chattanooga businessman; Stan Snodgrass, a former state senator and the second-place finisher in the 1970 Democratic primary for governor; and Tom Wiseman, a former state House member and state treasurer.

The New York Times, in handicapping the race just over a week before the primary, said the state didn't fit the "formula for Democratic recovery in the New South," where a "new face" candidate with access to new money could "tip over the old-machine Democrat with a television blitz or some other media gimmick in the party primary." That candidate then could "ease to election — especially if the Republicans oblige by nominating a militant conservative — with a campaign of friendly, usually pale, progressivism."

The newspaper noted that between 40 and 65 percent of the primary vote was still undecided, and that 25 percent of the vote would probably win. The state labor federation had said it wasn't endorsing a candidate, and the influential Nashville Tennessean newspaper hadn't endorsed anyone.

The Times said Blanton, the former congressman from rural West Tennessee, had a lead in the contest but the two young millionaires, Butcher, 38, and Haney, 34, were making the "'new-face' phenomenon an issue in itself." Both had hired nationally known professionals to make strategic media buys.

In the end, Blanton's rural West Tennessee strength was enough to overcome the millionaires, who split East Tennessee, and Wiseman and Crockett, both of whom had pockets of support in Middle Tennessee. Snodgrass and Bass proved to be also-rans, and two other candidates, David Pack and James Powers, actually won three counties between them.

Blanton, who would go on to defeat Republican Lamar Alexander in the Watergate-tainted November general election, captured the primary with only 22.73 percent of the vote.

In 2018, Republicans do not have a West Tennessee candidate, as Dunn (from Memphis) was for them in 1970 and Blanton was for Democrats in 1974. Black, Harwell and Lee are from the Nashville region, and Boyd is from Knoxville.

And while rural West Tennessee will be a critical area this year, so will Southeast Tennessee. All four candidates deemed it important enough to attend the Hamilton County GOP's Lincoln Day dinner last week, and Lee even returned for the Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast on Tuesday.

To achieve maximum exposure in those regions of the state, at least three of the four have passed or roughly equaled U.S. Sen Bob Corker's old state record for self-financing in a state campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosures. The former Chattanooga mayor loaned his campaign $4.1 million for his first senatorial run in 2006, but campaign finance records show Boyd already has put in $6.1 million, Lee about $5.3 million and Black around $4.1 million.

That's a far cry from the nearly $1 million of his own money Haney was said to be prepared to spend on his campaign 44 years ago.

We hope the eventual winner — whatever his or her winning percentage may be — will have the immediate backing of the other three candidates and will run a campaign in the fall that reminds voters how much has been achieved over the last eight years under Haslam but also what more can be done.

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