Friday, June 02, 2006

Report: Bloody Republican Primary Helping Secure A Ford Victory

The following reports comes via the Tennessee Journal:

The way it’s going, Tennessee’s Republican senatorial primary could serve two important purposes:

1. Nominating a Republican candidate.

2. Facilitating a November election victory for Democrat Harold Ford Jr.

The primary has become so divisive — and in some cases downright nasty — that a race once considered a long shot for Ford may not be quite so long. Assurances by Republican leaders that the party will pull together after the Aug. 3 primary sound more hopeful than convincing.

The latest development: Ed Bryant is refusing to commit to supporting Bob Corker if the former Chattanooga mayor wins the nomination.

Both Corker and fellow GOP candidate Van Hilleary say they’ll support the nominee if they don’t win. It is highly unusual for a serious candidate in a race at this level to refuse to make such a commitment. But Bryant’s campaign has been harsh, even shrill, in its criticism of Corker, the best-funded candidate, whose early TV ads have propelled him into position to challenge for the lead.

In a story Sunday, May 21, the Chattanooga Times Free Press asked all three major Republican candidates if they would support the primary winner against Ford in the November general election. Hilleary and Corker said yes, but a spokesman for Bryant told the paper that the former 7th district congressman would not respond to the “hypothetical” question.

Asked later in the week for a clarification, the campaign issued a statement that not only didn’t backtrack but made it clear that Corker alone, not Hilleary, was the reason for Bryant’s aversion to the hypothetical query. The two-paragraph statement asserted that Corker won’t be the nominee and that the question “sends shivers down the spines of conservative Republicans who’ve researched Mr. Corker’s well documented record. . . .” Further, the campaign declared that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between Corker and Ford on abortion rights, taxes, and government spending issues.

Not in character. It is almost inconceivable that Bryant, a loyal party man, would not support the nominee. Indeed, he almost certainly will, even if he’s not willing to say so at this point. Four years ago, after losing to Lamar Alexander in another senatorial primary, he gave Alexander his wholehearted support. In that contest too, Bryant ran to the right of his opponent, charging that Alexander when governor had once, if briefly, been willing to consider a state income tax. In the case of Corker, the rap is that in a 1993 forum, while not endorsing the tax, he declined to reject it.

Bryant was criticized by some on the party’s right for not being tough enough in the ’02 campaign. He’s apparently trying to make up for it now. Hilleary, who served with Bryant in Congress for eight years and has a very similar conservative voting record, also has pounded away at Corker, describing him as “left-leaning” and unreliable on tax issues. But Bryant’s attacks have involved character, accusing Corker of “double-talk,” hypocrisy, and falsehoods. For months the campaign has issued a daily “fraud watch” electronic press release blasting Corker — for thefts and other misdeeds by a handful of Chattanooga city employees during his administration.

“Bob Corker Fraud Watch: Day 100” was proclaimed Friday, but the Bryant campaign was unable to generate any fanfare for the so-called milestone. The ongoing “watch” has generated scarcely any media interest. The mean tone of the campaign is in strong contrast to Bryant’s personal demeanor. He is well liked and respected and has a loyal following. Indeed, his campaign is banking on the belief that his core support in West Tennessee will stick with him while Corker’s TV ads pull votes away from Hilleary. Hilleary began the race ahead in the polls because of name identification from his hard fought, expensive race against Democrat Phil Bredesen for governor in 2002.

Corker’s name ID started in single digits, but the successful entrepreneur and former state finance commissioner has been a prolific fund-raiser and was able to launch ongoing statewide TV and radio ads April 20. Ford has run ads off and on, and Hilleary briefly was on the air in a couple of markets, at an insignificant level, in late April. Bryant has yet to hit the airwaves. The Hilleary campaign last week purchased three weeks of TV time for July in the Knoxville and Tri-Cities market, where 1st congressional district candidates likely will be gobbling up time close to the election. But it has yet to make other purchases. Bryant has made none.

In person. At forums, Bryant generally makes only veiled criticisms of Corker. Hilleary actually has been more blunt on occasion, though all the candidates have been relatively tame at the joint events. The harshest statements about Corker have come in electronic form from the Bryant campaign. A news release last week quoted Bryant as saying it’s not that “Corker can’t tell the whole truth about his record of raising taxes, increasing government spending and supporting abortion rights in his TV ads; rather he’s admitting he won’t.” That shot came after Corker refused to take part in a series of “Town Hall meetings” that Bryant proposed in order to give Corker an “opportunity to explain the whole truth about his record.” Steve Gill offered to host the first town hall meeting on his Nashville radio program June 6. Hilleary will take part with Bryant. The two recently agreed on a “conservative truce” in which neither will attack the other, though both are free to hit Corker.

Corker declined to take part in the radio program and was sharply criticized by Gill. Later, Gill toned down his criticism, saying he had spoken with Corker and the candidate hadn’t ruled out taking part. Invitations from conservative talk radio programs in Memphis and Tri-Cities are in the works, putting Corker in the situation of walking into fire from all sides or antagonizing influential talk show hosts.

Meanwhile, all three candidates have been invited to participate in TV debates proposed for June 29 by WATE in Knoxville and July 13 by WBIR in the same city. All have accepted the first.

Poll. In a SurveyUSA poll conducted May 20-22 for WBIR, Corker was favored by 38%, compared with 28% for Hilleary and 23% for Bryant. In West Tennessee, Bryant had 47%, Corker 25%, and Hilleary 17%. In Middle Tennessee, Hilleary led with 38% to Corker’s 30% and Bryant’s 21%. But in traditionally Republican East Tennessee, which accounted for 41% of the sample, Corker had 54%, Hilleary 27%, and Bryant 10%.

SurveyUSA makes automated calls. Most professionals believe polls in which persons make the calls are more reliable, though some argue that automation eliminates one potential source of bias. And certainly the automated polls are more reliable than Internet surveys. While none of the Senate campaigns would base strategy on results of an automated poll, the SurveyUSA polls in the past have not been wildly inaccurate in general elections. Their primary sampling, though, is more controversial.

If nothing else, the new poll clearly indicates that Corker has surged since beginning his TV spots.

Bryant issued a press release in late April after a SurveyUSA poll found that Corker was viewed unfavorably by 14% of conservatives and favorably by only 12%. He argued that this indicated conservatives were rejecting Corker’s “hypocrisy on abortion, taxes and [his] claim to have used conservative principles to get positive results.” In January, after a SurveyUSA poll showed Hilleary had far more name recognition than Bryant or Corker, the Hilleary campaign didn’t issue a press release. But its web site did post a note citing news stories about the poll.

Looming fight. The good news for Republicans is that so far, the nastiness has been mostly below the general public’s radar. The bad news is that Bryant and Hilleary will have to be attacking Corker on TV and radio before long or he’ll leave them in his dust.
For Ford, of course, that too is good news.

Republicans argue that Ford’s record — which includes a pro-choice stance and a one-time “F” rating from the National Rifle Association — is too liberal for him to be electable statewide. And they’re quietly hoping family ties will be a problem for him — his uncle John Ford’s bribery trial is scheduled a month before the general election.

But Ford should be able to turn out an energized Democratic base. And if the Republican primary ends with a faction soured on the nominee, the same may not be true for the GOP candidate. The Republicans may wind up all lovey-dovey, but it’s hard to see it right now. And while this doesn’t make Ford the frontrunner, it does give him a fighting chance.

U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Memphis), a Senate candidate whose TV ad on high gasoline prices has gotten lots of attention, was roundly criticized by Republicans for voting against a bill Thursday to permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The bill passed 225-201 but faces long odds in the Senate. After the vote, Ford released a public letter to President Bush calling for an “energy summit.” All four of the state’s Republican representatives voted for the bill, as did Reps. Lincoln Davis (D-Pall Mall) and John Tanner (D-Union City). Ford was joined in opposition by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) and Bart Gordon (D-Murfreesboro).