Three Republican gubernatorial candidates at a Davidson County Republican Party picnic Saturday talked about the potential for negative television ads to draw clear distinctions between them in the race, and two of them promptly proceeded to do it immediately in person.
The third candidate, the perceived leader, said he’s ready to respond as needed.
Both U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey took serious issue with Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam’s claims that he is on the side of gun owners on Second Amendment rights, and both spoke at length about how Haslam should have more to show for his efforts since he has spent so much money in the campaign so far.
The field is working toward an Aug. 5 primary, with early voting scheduled to begin July 16, and their perceived standings in the race come greatly due to an independent poll in the last week by WSMV-TV in Nashville. The poll showed Haslam in the lead, followed by Wamp and Ramsey in that order. WSMV will televise a gubernatorial debate Monday night at Belmont University.
One of the most noticeable factors in that poll is it showed 36 percent of those responding are undecided, which would put many votes up for grabs in the final days before voting. But candidates have their own nuanced takes on that figure and other numbers in the survey.
The poll showed Haslam ahead with 32 percent, then Wamp with 21 percent and Ramsey with 11 percent. So the 36 percent undecided is larger than the support of any individual candidate. If those numbers are accurate, television advertising down the stretch could have an enormous effect on the race.
Haslam, all candidates agree, is the leader. Wamp and Ramsey disagree on who is best positioned to make a move on the Knoxville mayor.
Haslam may have invited his own criticism with a mailer in the last week that portrayed him as a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, including the assertion that Knoxville is a gun-friendly city, that he will protect gun shows and that Haslam is a “life member” of the NRA.
“Mayor Haslam sent out one of the most disingenuous mail pieces I’ve ever seen on Second Amendment rights,” said Ramsey, who has based much of his campaign on his credibility on gun rights. “He said he has been a life member of the NRA. Yeah, he mailed a thousand dollars in last March.
“And he’s going to fight against outside groups shutting down gun shows in Tennessee. He was a member of that group for five years.”
The reference is to the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, usually associated with co-chairman Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City. Haslam has said he was concerned about the amount of gun crime he was fighting in Knoxville and that that’s why he joined the group, but he says he left the organization when it began to take positions he didn’t agree with.
Wamp sided with Ramsey on that one.
“I’m trying to be nice, but that’s got to be one of the most phony things we’ve seen in Tennessee politics in many years,” Wamp said of Haslam’s mailer. “If you see his propaganda, he wants to portray himself as a lifetime gun rights person, when in fact the Bloomberg association was clearly anti-NRA, anti-gun owners, anti-Second Amendment rights.
“It just points to, if you have enough money and spend enough money, you can say whatever you want to, even if it’s blatantly false, hoping that people will believe it.”
But Ramsey and Wamp also seem ready to go after each other if necessary, which has created a three-way showdown on who makes the first move.
“In a sense, it’s a chess game,” Wamp said. “Who’s going to do what? I think the Haslams are confident and maybe even overconfident, and to be honest with you, I’m glad I’m the underdog.”
But Ramsey reiterated his oft-stated point, “Congressman Wamp picked the wrong year to run to say, ‘I’m from Washington and I’m here to help.'”
Ramsey is relying on deep anti-Washington sentiment that has dominated much of the campaign season and has made that his campaign theme, saying he will give Washington “the boot.”
Wamp knows Washington is unpopular. But he defended himself by pointing to the names of the representatives in Washington from the Volunteer State whom Tennessee Republicans would surely support.
“Marsha Blackburn deserves to be re-elected. Bob Corker deserves to be supported. Jimmy Duncan deserves to be re-elected. Phil Roe deserves to be re-elected,” Wamp said. He then mentioned the endorsement he got from personal finance guru Dave Ramsey who, Wamp said, made the point that being from Washington is an asset for Wamp since as governor he will know the nuances of the federal government.
While Ron Ramsey and Wamp may have tipped their hand on how they might hit Haslam, the Knoxville mayor said he’s ready to react if anyone launches an attack.
“When you enter a race, you go into a race with the knowledge some people might try to be negative. We’re prepared to respond,” Haslam said.
Given that his campaign has raised more than $8 million, there is general agreement that Haslam is in position to go with any media buy he wants. So it’s common knowledge Haslam will have the wherewithal to strike back. It then becomes a matter of who might attack and on what issue. And it has to have occurred to both Wamp and Ramsey that Haslam’s resources mean he could do a lot of harm himself if he wanted. Nevertheless, Haslam’s campaign advertising thus far has been consistently wholesome sounding, so much so that it must annoy Wamp and Ramsey.
And that has to make the two underdogs contemplate the number of undecided voters as exemplified in that WSMV poll. There are votes to be had, but there might also be votes to be lost if a candidate uses a poor choice in advertising.
Both Wamp and Ramsey see the undecided number itself as an indication that Haslam can be reached, with both pointing to the amount of money Haslam has spent, although they disagree on what that figure is.
“The 35-40 percent (of undecideds) is surprising, considering Bill Haslam has already spent $5 million, I suppose,” Ramsey said of the poll that had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent. “And I really believe if I had spent $5 million I’d have this race locked up. That just goes to show that people aren’t buying into his campaign.”
Wamp had a similar reaction.
“Our numbers were slightly lower on the undecideds,” Wamp said. “So when we saw that undecided, that actually may be better than we thought, because if undecideds are going up, then the Haslams are going down. The undecideds are very much in play.
“When you spend $10 million or more you effectively are the incumbent. If the undecideds are going up and your numbers are going down, that’s a real good trend for the others.”
Wamp routinely refers to “the Haslams” rather than just Bill Haslam, in an attempt to portray the family as a force bigger than the mayor himself. Wamp has, for example, compared the Haslams to the Ewings on the television show Dallas, saying Bill Haslam is like Bobby Ewing, a nice guy but lacking the presence of other family members.
Haslam, meanwhile, has taken a different view of the number of undecided voters.
“If you poll likely voters instead of registered voters, that number comes way down,” Haslam said. “I know that’s true. I think that undecided was because they included all registered voters.”
The WSMV poll was of registered voters, not likely voters, but it found that 89 percent of the people surveyed said they were likely to vote in the primary.
Haslam, though, has taken criticisms in stride during the campaign. If he has been rattled by activities of the Wamp or Ramsey campaigns, he doesn’t show it. He has proved to have a thick skin thus far, and he has stayed above the fray on negative campaigning.
When asked how he plans to get those undecided voters, Haslam replied, “We’ll do it the same way we’ve been getting votes all along.
“We think we have a great plan. We’re doing the phone calls, the door knocks, all the normal stuff you do.”
Haslam so far has been on a steady ship.
“A business background says you plan your work and then you work your plan,” Haslam said. “We’ve been doing that the whole time. I think the results show that. We’ll keep doing that.”