Conventional wisdom holds that Sen. Lamar Alexander is almost unbeatable in 2008. He’s commonly viewed as one of the most popular politicians ever to hold office in the state, and the political newsletters are rating his seat as “safe Republican.” But Democrats are buzzing over their own polling that they say shows Alexander is vulnerable, and they’ve just about succeeded in luring a potentially credible challenger into the race to make life hard for the senator.
Mike McWherter, the 51-year-old son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, is forming an exploratory committee to contemplate whether to run, and all signs point toward his candidacy. Democrats say voter disgust with the war in Iraq and the unpopularity of President Bush could make 2008 their year. Their polls show that less than 55 percent of voters say they will vote to give Alexander a second term—a sign that he’s vulnerable. Jim Sasser was polling that low a year before his loss to Bill First in 1994, the last time Tennessee voters ousted a Senate incumbent.
“I really think Lamar is vulnerable, and I’m not just whistling past the graveyard,” says state Democratic Party chair Gray Sasser, Jim’s son. “This election could really shape up to be like the ’94 cycle. The Republicans in Washington have run this country into the ground. Look at the price we’re paying for gas to run your car or fill up your lawn mower or your boat for the weekend. Look at what they’ve done in foreign policy. We just really need to change the way business is done in Washington.”
McWherter, a lawyer who runs the family beer distributorship and is vice chairman of the First State Bank in Union City, is talking to movers and shakers around the state to gauge the difficulties of the campaign. He has never been a candidate for public office before, so he would run as a political outsider in contrast to Alexander, who has been seeking one public office or another since 1974. McWherter would need to raise around $7 million to compete with Alexander, who will leverage his Senate seat for enough contributions to outspend any opponent easily. McWherter says he knows that if he runs, “it’s going to be a long, tough uphill race,” even more so if Fred Thompson wins the GOP presidential nomination.
But at a recent political dinner in his father’s hometown of Dresden, McWherter said, “If Lamar Alexander gets reelected, you’re sending a message back to Washington that everything’s OK, that you like the way things are operating, and I don’t think people do. As I’ve traveled around this state, what I’ve heard from many Tennesseans is they are very frustrated with what’s going on in this country today. It really occurred to me that their future cannot be nearly as bright as the opportunities that I’ve had in my lifetime if this country’s bankrupt, and that’s where we’re headed, and people like Lamar are driving us in that direction.”
For his part, Alexander isn’t behaving much like a comfortable incumbent. Never one to stand on principle, he has shifted throughout his career from moderate new Southerner as governor from 1979-87 to hard-right conservative as Lamar! in the ’96 presidential campaign. Now, after running for the Senate in 2002 as a Bush loyalist on the war and domestic issues, he’s casting himself as an independent-minded consensus-seeker and trying to persuade Tennesseans that he’s part of the solution, not the problem, in Washington.
In media interviews, the senator has been lecturing Bush and the Senate on Iraq. “I think it’s time to finish the job in Iraq honorably, and I think the president could take us more rapidly down that road than he has recommended,” he said in a recent appearance on WTVF-Channel 5+’s Inside Politics program. “The political stalemate in Washington, D.C., is worse than in Baghdad.”
Democrats held hostage
Tennessee Democrats should get used to it. Harold Ford Jr. is ostentatiously going to float his name as a candidate for just about every decent statewide opportunity for a long time to come, and that’ll freeze each race until he deigns to make his actual intentions known.
Most recently, as The City Paper has reported, Junior sent an emissary to Nashville to declare his interest in a 2010 gubernatorial bid. That stops former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and Congressman Lincoln Davis from making any preparations because, we would venture to predict, neither will run against Ford.
It’s not because Ford is all that formidable. In fact, he carries a ton of baggage as a member of the nefarious Ford family and is close to unelectable statewide. (If he weren’t, he would have joined Democrats around the country in beating Republicans last year. Instead, he lost to a relatively weak candidate, Bob Corker, in the Senate race.) No, Ford will go unchallenged within his own party because no one can afford to cross him and thereby annoy black voters in Memphis, who are essential to any Democrat’s chances in a statewide election.
Our mad-dog congressman
It’s nice to hold a totally safe seat in Congress. Ask Nashville’s own quirky Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper, who pretty much does what he pleases in Washington without fear of political repercussions.
Last week, he voted to condemn the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org for its “General Betray Us” ad maligning Gen. David Petraeus because, as Cooper flack John Spragens (a former Scene staff writer) says, “it was an offensive hit job on a decent guy who’s serving his country.”
Next, he voted for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), the same program he voted against in August. (Explaining the U-turn, Spragens says Cooper voted against S-CHIP the first time because it carried too much extra spending and too many political handouts.) Then Cooper joined a few other mavericks in proposing the creation of a commission to develop solutions to all those unsustainable entitlements, one of which is the S-CHIP program.
Perhaps justifiably, Cooper has turned into a raving mad dog on the issue of entitlements, spreading the gloom at every possible opportunity. “Every day that we do nothing means bigger tax hikes and more draconian benefit cuts in the future,” he says. “There’s no excuse for us to push this burden onto our children when we have all the tools to confront it now. So we’ll force the issue—before a $50 trillion shortfall destroys our credit rating, doubles tax rates or leaves our grandchildren without a social safety net. This is a moral imperative for our generation.”
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