Republicans have come to consider the 3rd congressional seat theirs for the taking over the past 16 years. Helped by legislative gerrymandering of the district in favor of GOP strongholds and Rep. Zach Wamp's firm hold on the office since Democrat Marilyn Lloyd's retirement in 1994, Democrats haven't mounted a competitive campaign since 1996. Indeed, the Democratic Party - some individual candidates notwithstanding - seems to have given up altogether on the idea of retaking the seat.
This year, however, the political circumstances, if not the Democratic party's dispirited mindset, have changed. Mr. Wamp is leaving his seat open in his all-or-nothing bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. And Republican aspirants have poured in. Eleven made it onto the GOP primary ballot, while just four are on the Democratic ballot.
The common perception about the GOP ticket is that Robin Smith leads Chuck Fleischmann, that the rest of the field will split up the crumbs, and that Mrs. Smith will ultimately go to Washington. That may be the case, but based on our interviews with the candidates, Republican primary voters would do better to consider Art Rhodes or Tim Gobble.
They are more authentic, they think more broadly, and their backgrounds and views reflect far more comprehension of the complexity of issues facing the country than one can find in the national-party's talking points, especially as regurgitated by Mrs. Smith and Mr. Fleischmann, who seem unconcerned about their vast gaps in logic and fiscal facts.
On the Democratic side, there is only one viable candidate among the four: Brent Staton, a family-care physician at Erlanger Hospital. Though he has never entered a political race, his thoughtful views and nuanced insights - particularly regarding the nation's health care debate - and his calm, reasoned approach to other issues suggest more common sense than most voters are accustomed to in the politicians they find on their ballots.
The Democratic nomination: Dr. Brent Staton
A native Tennessean whose family lived a few years in Chattanooga before moving back to Jamestown in the north end of the 3rd District, Dr. Staton says he is running for office mainly because of the many patients he sees who are struggling with health care issues. His priorities include job creation and fiscal responsibility in Washington, but his chief interest is in helping sculpt the implementation of the health care bill to focus on preventive and affordable care, and improvements in the delivery of care.
He disagrees on some points in the health care bill adopted by Democrats and the Obama administration. For example, he opposes a federal mandate on the purchase of insurance and taxes on so-called Cadillac plans. These, he says, are not proper vehicles to pay for health care reform. He does, however, agree with the need, both from a humane and a religious point of view, to create a rational, affordable health care system that serves the needs all Americans. He reasonably believes his medical background in varied specialties, and through his medical schooling at an internationally renowned medical school in Australia (Flinders University), would help bring needed medical insight as Congress fleshes out the health care reform bill.
Raised partly on a farm in rural Tennessee, Dr. Staton expresses genuine insight and concern for the unemployed in Tennessee, especially in the rural reaches of the district. He advocates targeted tax incentives for small businesses to spur job growth, as well as investments in infrastructure projects for roads, water supplies and schools.
He supports maintenance of Medicare and Social Security, and would oppose privatizing the latter due to the inherent risk of financial markets - witness the 2008 financial meltdown and the losses of retirement savings and jobs for so many Americans.
Dr. Staton says his goal, as a physician, a father and a grandfather, is not to become a politician, but to return after several terms to his avocation: his work as a physician.
Democrats who despair of retaking the 3rd District seat, and who have been hoping for an attractive and qualified candidate with the intelligence and vision to provide unusually good leadership, should find fresh reason to rally around Dr. Staton. His stature, intellect and vision are worthy. But he needs party support to win the nomination, and to make his campaign viable in the fall.
The Republican nomination: Art Rhodes
Republicans searching for someone to replace Rep. Wamp seem to focus on Robin Smith, whose prior work for the state's Republican Party have earned her contacts, support and endorsements. But her devotion to the GOP talking points reflect mainly a passion for the sort of political propaganda that fails the test of leadership. When she parrots the line about stopping the Obama administration's "runaway spending," she doesn't pause to consider that the administration put expenses for both of the wars Mr. Obama inherited in the budget, rather than hiding them as off-budget "emergency spending." Nor does she acknowledge that George W. Bush doubled the federal debt, from $5.7 trillion to more than $12 trillion through his last budget, to finance not just the wars, but the unpaid-for tax cuts for the wealthy, Medicare prescription drug benefits and the TARP fund.
Candidate Art Rhodes, of Cleveland, the CEO of a pension plan with $250 million in assets, also wants to control "runaway spending," but he has a far better sense of how to grapple with the issue and how it has developed. He served for 10 years as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Parker, R-Miss., until he left Washington in 1998. He expresses disappointment in both parties, but he at least is honest enough to acknowledge what he calls "the utter failure" of fiscal discipline by George W. Bush and Republicans in Mr. Bush's second term.
His breakdown of the current $3.8 trillion federal budget suggests that mandatory spending (mainly on entitlements and debt service) will rise from the current 60 percent of the budget, to 80 percent in 10 years, and 100 percent in 20 years. But given the uncertainty of ordinary investment returns, he does not advocate privatizing Social Security. He has more informed views than any other Republican candidate in the race on everything from financial reform to excessive partisanship to the IRS tax code.
Mr. Rhodes is clearly conservative, but he articulates a rational reason for every position he takes. He also recognizes the need to find more consensus about what the country needs, rather than the political parties.
He wisely says that the problem with most people in Congress is that they think it's "the best job they ever had, so they'll do anything to keep it." For himself, he says, "it would be the highest honor, but not the best job I've ever had." His goal would be to do something good to deserve the honor. That's the sort of sensible approach that makes him the best candidate in the Republican field.