U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp credits U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn with defining a political trend in Tennessee that he believes will help him win the governor’s race.
“She calls it Middle to West. What happened 10 years ago in Middle Tennessee is now happening in West Tennessee,” Wamp said.
“It’s a grassroots, blue-collar, red-blooded, lower-to-middle to middle-class new Republican voter. It’s not the country club people Bill Haslam appeals to,” Wamp said. “He really has nowhere to go. That’s good.”
Whether there is truth in Wamp’s assessment of how to nominate a Republican to replace Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen only the results of the Aug. 5 primary will tell.
But whether the Republican votes in the governor’s race are going to Wamp, Haslam or Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the number of Republican voters in early voting compared to Democrats is overwhelming.
Figures from the state Division of Elections updated Monday showed that 249,709 ballots had been cast in early and absentee voting. The balloting includes Democratic and Republican primaries for governor and the state’s congressional races, as well as legislative races. Of the total number of voters, 156,338 cast Republican primary ballots, compared to 78,657 for Democrats.
A closer look shows that of Tennessee’s 95 counties, Republicans have the majority of ballots cast in 74 of them, compared to 21 counties with Democratic majorities. What has looked like a tidal wave of Republican support over the last few months at Republican events appears to be manifesting itself in early voting.
Much of the disparity might well be attributed to the fact Democrats have little motivation to vote in the primary, since in the governor’s race Mike McWherter is the only Democrat still running and is sure to win the nomination. A ruggedly combative race in the Republican primary pits Wamp of Chattanooga, Knoxville’s Haslam and Ramsey of Blountville in the hunt.
A recent Mason Dixon poll by the Tennessee Newspaper Network, a partnership among the state’s four major newspapers, showed Haslam leading the Republican pack with 36 percent of the vote, followed by Wamp with 25 percent and Ramsey with 20 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
“It’s almost impossible to poll people in a primary,” Ramsey said. “People are examining the issues, and they’re coming toward me.”
But the Democrat, McWherter, seems to believe the Republican choice will be Haslam. McWherter issued a press release Monday in which his campaign manager, Kim Sasser Hayden, said, “As Bill Haslam spends millions of dollars trying to defend his record of raising property taxes, price gouging Tennesseans at the gas pump and hiding his vast oil wealth, Tennessee voters realize he is not the character he has tried to create in his television ads.”
McWherter also announced a campaign television ad, which focuses on his plan to create jobs and boost the economy.
Haslam’s lead in the primary would appear to be commanding by following recent polls, which makes it all the more intriguing that the Knoxville mayor put up a one-minute television ad recently defending himself against Wamp’s attacks and launching some of his own at the congressman. Wamp has tried to paint Haslam as a rich kid and an oil man. Haslam, whose family has built a fortune with its Pilot Travel Centers, makes voters aware in his ad that Wamp has participated in Washington’s spending ways and never had to balance a budget.
Ramsey, who has the support of tea party organizers, is painting himself as the one true conservative with the legislative experience to be governor. Ramsey is hitting both Haslam and Wamp in his advertising, capitalizing on issues similar to theirs.
Haslam’s latest ad leads to the question of why a candidate with a double-digit lead would bother to air a negative response ad, unless there is more to the reason for the ad than Haslam is letting on. He has said the title of the ad, “Enough Is Enough,” says it all about its intention. Haslam said he just got tired of what he was putting up with from Wamp.
Ramsey said the Haslam campaign thought it would coast to victory.
“They went to the four corners offense and tried to run the clock out and way too soon,” Ramsey said. “He’s literally trying to ride this out. You can’t dodge the voters and expect to win. They’re (the Haslam campaign) in free fall. They know they’re in free fall. They’re not in panic mode yet, but I think they’re getting close to it.”
Yet Ramsey and Wamp trail in the polls, which gets back to Wamp’s point.
“Polling doesn’t show where people are voting heavy or voting light,” Wamp said. “Just watch what happens. Where people are voting in bigger numbers is where I am going to do better. We’re watching that constantly in early voting.
“I do well in rural counties. I wanted to do a certain percentage of the total vote, and they’re 8 points higher. What does that mean? It means a lot of traditional Democrats in rural counties in places like the 8th District are voting Republican for the first time ever. I’m doing very well there.”
Of the 21 counties where there have been more people voting in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary, five are in the 8th Congressional District in West Tennessee, where Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron is the likely nominee against a field of three Republicans — Stephen Fincher, Ron Kirkland and George Flinn — who are in a fierce battle.
Six of the Democrats’ majority counties are in the 6th Congressional District, where state Sens. Diane Black and Jim Tracy and former businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik are waging a tough Republican primary battle. Two war veterans, Brett Carter and Ben Leming, head the Democratic field in the 6th.
Five of the Democrats’ 21 majority counties in early voting are in the 4th Congressional District, where incumbent Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis awaits the survivor of a crowded field of Republicans.
As expected Democrats are casting the majority of ballots in the state’s two biggest urban counties, Davidson (which is Nashville) and Shelby (which includes Memphis). Republicans have cast the majority of early-voting ballots in Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and Knox County (Knoxville).
Knox County, home to Haslam, has cast 13,951 Republican ballots in early voting to 1,166 for Democrats.