On Aug. 2, Brad Staats won the Republican nomination in Tennessee's 5th Congressional District by a margin of 44 votes. In November, in all likelihood, he will lose to the district's five-term Democratic incumbent, U.S Rep. Jim Cooper.
Staats knows these odds. He would be a fool to dismiss them, but he says he's not resigned to them.
"You're not alone in your question," he tells the Scene, responding to a somewhat more polite version of, "Do you really think you can win?"
"I've had a number of people say 'Well, you know, if you can't actually win, then you can get your name out there.' And that really infuriated me," he says. "I don't want to get in just to have name recognition. I mean, truthfully, as hard as this is that's a waste of time. I want to win this thing."
But Staats' candidacy may simply serve as evidence of the ever-increasing strength of the Tennessee GOP as a whole. Faced with their own uphill challenge against a well-entrenched incumbent — Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker — the state's anemic Democratic Party could only offer up what they now admit was a weak crop of candidates, culminating in the disavowed but no less damaging candidacy of Mark Clayton.
While acknowledging that the 5th is a "difficult district" for Republicans, the state party's executive director Adam Nickas calls Staats a "top-tier candidate" and "the type we recruit even on the state level." He says the state party will offer support in the general election where it sees fit.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pleading with voters to write in anyone but Clayton in the Senate race.
Staats, who is married with four children, lives in Hermitage in what he describes as a "very, very busy, loud, noisy home." He moved to the Nashville area in 1998, leaving a career on Broadway — the one in New York — to be with his wife, Bethany, and their daughter.
Since 2003 he has owned and operated his own small businesses, one of which — a security company — he has arranged to sell, freeing up time and energy for the campaign.
Staats says he's always been "politically energized" but that he never had political aspirations. Most of his community involvement, he says, has been through his church. He and his wife teach high school Bible classes at controversial pastor Maury Davis' Cornerstone Church in Madison. But after running his mouth (his words) at various conservative gatherings, Staats says he was compelled by friends to "just shut up and run for office."
In person, Staats comes across as a just-folks populist in the vein of Joe the Plumber. He frequently qualifies his views by describing himself as an "average, everyday American," but he delivers the platitude earnestly.
"I'm not a politician. I don't know politicians, I don't think like politicians," he says. "I'm not an attorney. Maybe that's a good thing, because I'm finding out that so many of the politicians I don't like are attorneys. They figure out a way to manipulate things; I just kind of look at them black and white."
His campaign stresses that he lacks connections with grassroots conservative groups such as the tea party. Be that as it may, his stances on various issues, as summarized on his website, toe the right-wing line.
For "job creators" he would lower the tax rate to "no more than 22 percent." He is critical of the Obama administration's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline, and calls for increased domestic drilling.
On social issues, he is anti-abortion, opposed to same-sex marriage, and says his social beliefs "would never be compatible" with the president's. As a National Rifle Association member, he says, "We must stand united against the gun control lobby," while on immigration he expresses opposition to amnesty and support for e-verify.
The no-room-for-gray philosophy he cites is perhaps most apparent on fiscal issues, where he resembles those ascendant everymen who rode the red tide to D.C. in 2010 and held the line to the brink of default during last year's debt battle.
Staats has signed the "Reject the Debt" pledge along with, among others, Ted Cruz, the conservative star who recently won the Texas GOP Senate primary with the backing of Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and the Pauls pere et fils. The oath says a candidate will not vote to raise the debt ceiling — "No way," Staats says, "absolutely no way, whatsoever" — and will consider all spending open for reduction. Furthermore, under the oath a candidate pledges not to vote to authorize new spending without offsetting cuts, while agreeing not to vote for an unbalanced budget or one that increases total spending.
Cooper, by contrast, is a Blue Dog Democrat who has long championed bipartisan compromise, however frustrating that might be to liberals. During the final week of last year's debt-ceiling showdown, he called for legislation to stop paying lawmakers if they allowed the nation to default on its loans.
A New York Times piece at the time praised him as "The Last Moderate." Since then, no less a conservative than Diane Black has touted his "No Budget, No Pay Act" in pursuit of the political high ground.
Moreover, Cooper, who has been in Congress since 1982 — with an eight-year interruption during which he worked in the private sector — has benefited from the much-maligned entrenchment that has failed so many incumbents as of late. In 2010, he easily defeated what Staats calls "a very sloppily run campaign" from Republican challenger David Hall. In the last comparable election, when the 2008 presidential race topped the ballot, Cooper won by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
A comparison of their relative warchests is similarly harrowing for the challenger. But Staats and his campaign express confidence about their chances. They ran a poll before they spent any money and determined the race was "winnable."
They declined, however, to share the results.
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