Control of the state Senate for the next two years might depend on what voters think about adultery. Is it strictly a private matter, or a legitimate campaign issue?
We've come a long way since Gary Hart's monkey business. Twenty years ago, Hart halted his presidential bid after the Miami Herald staked out his Washington townhouse and reported on his affair with Donna Rice.
But Bill Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal, suggesting voters don't care that much about the sexual peccadilloes of their leaders. And this presidential race featured two admitted adulterers—Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. There was a little grumbling within the Christian Right, but their past philandering didn't really hurt either's campaign.
Supposedly, this voter nonchalance showed a growing maturity in American politics. But Tennessee's not exactly on the cultural cutting edge.
In two key state Senate contests next week—both in rural districts where so-called values voters dominate—candidates are fighting accusations of extramarital affairs.
The infidelity card has been played against Democrat Randy Camp in western Tennessee and Republican Mike Faulk in the northeastern part of the state. Either election could swing the Senate, which is now teetering with 16 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one independent.
Faulk's main accuser is Kelli Walker—a schoolteacher and chair of the Hawkins County Young Republicans. In a widely distributed letter, she says Faulk, who is divorced, wrecked her marriage and ruined her reputation.
"I believe God's punishment is swift and just when we willfully disobey his word," she wrote. "The consequences of my behavior have been just that. It has cost me my marriage, my children's security in the family unit I promised to provide for them, my reputation in the small town I have called home for 18 years, and my credibility as an educational professional in my community."
Camp is beset by his pissed off brother-in-law of 20 years, Tommy Roland, who sent his own letter everywhere.
"Randy Camp's conduct while married to my sister was horrible," Roland writes. "He was having several affairs right under our noses. His actions have resulted in at least two broken marriages and damage to others."
Reporters were queasy about covering the allegations at first. They wound up pulling a page from the national playbook. Lest they look tawdry, they sat back and let somebody else break the story. (The Associated Press went first in Faulk's case, and an Internet blog in Camp's.) Then respectable newspapers were free to jump into the slimefest too.
Camp's opponent, Delores Gresham, handed out buttons asking, "How Would Jesus Vote?" But she was content to let others spread the dirt on Camp until last week when she pulled the trigger on a tough TV ad.
"Camp lied to his wife for years," the announcer says, stopping just short of using the A-word as papers from Camp's messy divorce flash onscreen. "We can't believe anything Randy Camp says, and we sure can't trust him."
Mike Williams, who is running against Faulk, insists he won't talk about adultery. Instead, his TV ad paints Faulk as friend to child molesters and meth dealers. But if voters ask about Faulk's woman troubles, Williams says he tells them, "It's none of my business."
That, however, didn't stop a Williams supporter from popping up a website—anonymously, of course—to denounce the Republican "for faulking around."
Faulk and Camp are employing different defensive postures. It's hard to tell which is the smarter play.
Faulk is refusing to admit anything, like Clinton in his finger-wagging "I-never-had-sexual-relations-with-that-woman" mode. He claims the schoolteacher's got personal problems, though he does express the standard "deep regrets" for any part he may have played in them. What exactly was their relationship? He won't say.
Camp is more like the Clinton who admitted his affair with Lewinsky and wouldn't stop talking about it. He acknowledges his moral failings, but hopes voters won't care.
Camp says his brother-in-law's letter isn't entirely true, but he's not quibbling. "Listen," he told the Post Politics blog, "like some folks have told me, if they had just stuck with the truth, it would have been bad enough. I'm not hiding or covering up anything.
"If we only allowed perfect people to serve, we wouldn't have many people up there. But that's up to the voters to decide."
Camp was concerned enough to produce a TV ad in which his two daughters sing his praises as a father and family man. That may have backfired, though, because it prompted his mother-in-law to publicly castigate Camp for using her granddaughters as political props.
Insiders on both sides say they don't expect adultery to decide these races, not with the economy so important in everyone's mind. But that assumes there's a genuine debate about real issues, the main one being how to fund social needs at a time of falling sales tax collections. State legislative races are never that enlightening.
When all the candidates are saying the same things—they're all against taxes and for jobs and schools and guns and God—then who's to say how voters will make up their minds?
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