Washington Prowler

Tea Party Tennessee

A big money effort is afoot to neutralize the grassroots appeal of gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp.

By 2.23.10

The Tennessee gubernatorial primary is six months away, but things are already heating up in a race where Republicans can take another statehouse back from the Democrats. More importantly to conservatives, the race is pitting a classic, grassroots conservative, Congressman Zach Wamp, against moderate to liberal establishment Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who is banking on family name recognition and family money to carry him over the finish line.

Haslam has committed untold millions of his family money in what up until a couple weeks ago was considered a mediocre campaign. He held a disastrous press briefing in Nashville late last year where he was unable to state a clear position on any of the issues reporters asked him to comment on, and has thus far refused to release his federal tax returns as other candidates have. A now-famous YouTube video only exacerbated the perception that Haslam was not ready for a promotion beyond mayor or a job back at his father's business.

Then, a week before the Winter Olympics, Haslam's campaign guru, Tom Ingram, unveiled a splashy TV ad featuring the candidate and others walking around Tennessee with big red umbrellas, raising comparisons to either Citigroup or Mary Poppins advertisements. Regardless, the ad, which Haslam ran during the Olympics at a cost of almost a million dollars, is memorable. Haslam continues to trail Wamp in most polls, but almost immediately, as Haslam opened his checkbook for the ad buys, friendly media outlets began touting Haslam's perceived momentum and portraying him as the presumptive winner in the GOP primary.

Beyond Wamp, who has led most polls for months, Tennessee's Republican lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey and local district attorney Bill Gibbons, are also seeking the nomination. Ramsey is popular with among some conservatives and members of the state party establishment, and Gibbons has been a feisty campaigner.

But in a state where the tea party movement has strong roots -- Nashville has been the epicenter of several grassroots conservative and tea party conferences over the past year -- many national conservatives believe Wamp has out-worked Haslam and the rest of the field.

"Bill believes a checkbook and some name recognition of the family name will get you two-thirds of the way to the nomination," says a long-time observer of Tennessee politics. "I'd compare Haslam's approach this year to [Harold] Ford's Senate run a few years ago. I think most folks are ready for some new blood." Harold Ford, Jr. ran a lackluster campaign for the Senate in 2006, in which he had superior name recognition and actually led in a number of polls throughout the campaign against Republican Bob Corker. But Ford was perceived not to be working the campaign trail terribly hard, and in the end lost the race by less than three percentage points.

The presumed Democrat nominee in the gubernatorial race is businessman Mike McWherter, who is also being challenged by state senator Jim Kyle and former state legislator Kim McMillan. And some Democrats say they are actually working to help Haslam overcome the energy behind Wamp to give their man a better shot at the governor's mansion. "Given where things are going politically around the country, the state party would prefer Haslam over Wamp," says a DNC media consultant. "Wamp has worked hard on the grassroots and tea party types over the past few months and has the energy there. Haslam is running your typical Republican, establishment campaign. We'll take that over the tea-bagger grassroots types this election cycle."

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