Tennessee Democrats attending their 2013 Jackson Day fundraiser in Nashville over the weekend exhibited an abundance of exuberance for an as-yet unannounced challenger to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
“Run Sara Run” shirts and stickers ran rampant around the Municipal Auditorium Musicians Hall of Fame Saturday night, where the event was being held a few blocks away from the state Capitol. At one point, former state party chairman Chip Forrester roused the 550-plus strong dinner throng to a chanting, standing ovation for the would-be 2014 Democratic standard-bearer.
Sara Kyle, wife of Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, was the object of all the enthusiasm and adoration. And while she still didn’t officially commit, Kyle claimed she’s dead serious about building support now so that she’ll be off and running in credible fashion if and when she decides she’s all in.
Kyle, who up until March of this year served as director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, wouldn’t get specific about how she figures she’d differ from Haslam on matters of governance. But she signaled that with respect to some of the policy-driven pillars of Tennessee political discourse — the economy, education, health care — there’s rising public dissatisfaction with the governor’s performance since he took office in 2011.
“People are hurting,” said Kyle. “Their kids are getting out of college. There aren’t jobs. There are tax questions. There are economic questions that one group feels one way about and another group, the Haslam administration, feels maybe they ought to go in another direction.”
Kyle said she’s now touring the Volunteer State, talking to voters, “seeing how I can help them.”
Kyle kept most of her Haslam-related comments general, but she did take aim at the administration for not snatching up federal Affordable Care Act funding to expand TennCare.
“There are people here concerned that the money is not coming in for health care that we could have — it is free money,” Kyle said. “I am listening to those concerns and seeing exactly who it affects, how it is affecting, and what we feel like we can do to change that course.”
As for key allies and advisers, Kyle indicated that her husband, who for a time considered running for governor himself in 2010, will definitely be among her inner circle.
“Jim is one of the brightest political minds I have ever known. I am very fortunate to have his advice,” she said. “He helps me, his friends are helping me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
High-profile Tennessee Democrats like Forrester and Roy Herron, the present party chairman, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhigh, say they’re excited by the prospect of a Sara Kyle candidacy.
“Sara is smart and attractive and she loves people and she loves politics. She’d be a fantastic candidate. The people who know her are excited about her,” said Herron, who took the state party’s reins from Forrester earlier this year.
Asked if it’s starting to get late for a potential 2014 gubernatorial candidate to be undecided, Herron said there’s still “a plenitude of time” for making such decisions.
“(Democrat) Alison Lundergan Grimes from Kentucky just announced (on July 1), and she is going to beat (GOP U.S. Sen.) Mitch McConnell with his many millions. So I don’t think it is too late,” said Herron. “There are a whole lot things going on that can develop and work in (Kyle’s) benefit. As she’s traveling around the state thinking about it, she’ll be talking with people and meeting people and getting to know folks — seeing old friends and making new friends. What she’s doing is what you do when you run.”
Fitzhugh, who’s probably still got a few “Run Craig Run” stickers bumping around his office from when he was thinking of taking on Haslam, said of Kyle that she’s “very articulate and knows the issues.”
“She’s grounded in good stuff and I think she’d be an excellent candidate for governor,” said Fitzhugh, an attorney and banker from Ripley. “I think she’ll be right on most of the issues — especially those involving jobs, education and health care. I think her message will resonate with the people of Tennessee.”
There was at least one member of the Jackson Day audience on Saturday who couldn’t help but snigger a little, albeit with a touch of sympathy, at the rah-rah optimism and go-get’em gusto for Kyle and the TNDP’s political prospects as a whole.
The first thought that popped into Hendersonville Republican Debra Maggart’s head as she strode up to Municipal Auditorium and got barraged with all the “Run Sara Run” messaging was, “Are they talking about Sarah Palin?”
It shortly dawned on Maggart, though, that the Democrats hadn’t simply misspelled the former Alaska governor’s first name, but in fact were egging-on Sen. Kyle’s wife.
For the record, Maggart assured TNReport.com she didn’t attend the Democrats’ fundraiser because she’s contemplating a party-identification reassignment procedure. “I’m not ever going to switch parties,” she declared. Rather, she’s now on the Tennessee Medical Association’s PAC payroll and gets paid to help raise money for doling out to state politicians regardless of partisan affiliation.
As for Kyle or any other Democrat’s chances of taking out the incumbent Republican governor, Maggart believes they’re essentially nil. For that matter, Tennessee Democrats ought to get used to life in the political wilderness, because that’s likely to be their home for quite a stretch, she said.
“I think the state of Tennessee is going to be red for a long, long time,” Maggart said.
In Maggart’s view, the biggest short-term political problem the Democratic Party faces in Tennessee is their support for and defense of the president’s signature policy achievement in Washington, the Affordable Care Act.
“I think that is going to continue to hurt them for a long time, at least here in Tennessee,” Maggart said.