Moderate Wins Tenn. GOP Primary

Former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker won Thursday’s Republican primary for the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist, handily defeating former representatives Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary; Corker will face Memphis’ Harold Ford, Jr. in the November general election.

What does this matchup portend? On the one hand, Mike Hollihan thinks Bryant or Hilleary would have trounced Ford, while Corker will face a tougher road:

As for the Corker v. Ford race, well … it’s a race now and not just a Republican walk-away. It’s not gonna be pretty.

On the other hand, KC Johnson thinks Corker increases the chances of a GOP hold in Tennessee; he also notes a string of Democratic futility in recent Senate contests:

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Tennessee since 1990–in fact, they haven’t even come close to winning a Senate race in Tennessee since that time. (Twenty years ago, Tennessee had the most liberal Senate delegation in the South, Albert Gore and Jim Sasser.) Ford is far and way the strongest candidate the Dems could offer in the state–telegenic, very bright, smart politically. But in a state where the Republicans have a built-in advantage, it’s hard to see an African-American winning.

Although Democrats have been successful in statewide races–notably, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen looks like a shoe-in for a second term as governor, and Democrats retain tenuous control over the state legislature–federal races have not gone well for the party, most notably in 2000 when “native son” Al Gore failed to win his home state.

I tend to agree with Johnson’s assessment; while Tennessee certainly is a relatively conservative state, it has a strong pragmatic streak in statewide races, and the appeals to the GOP base on social issues that work in gerrymandered House districts tend not to be as effective in statewide contests–consider that Hilleary lost to Bredesen in the 2002 gubernatorial race, and Frist, Lamar Alexander, and Fred Thompson have hardly been favorites of the right wing of the party. Corker would seem to fit in that mold and will probably be seen by swing voters as the best choice, especially given the baggage Ford brings to the race in a state where the popularity of the Ford family ends around Memphis’ I-240 loop.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Michael says:

    Poll numbers post by DailyKos:

    Mason-Dixon. 7/17-19. Likely voters. MoE 4% (No trend lines)

    Corker (R) 49
    Ford (D) 36

    Rasmussen. 7/16. Registered voters. MoE 4.5% (No trend lines)

    Corker (R) 49
    Ford (D) 37

    University of Tennessee. 7/5-16. Registered voters. MoE 4.4% (No trend lines)

    Corker (R) 42
    Ford (D) 35

    Corker may have to fight to win, but the polls show him with the advantage so far. I haven’t seen polls against the other Republican candidates, but I would disagree with Mike Halloran on this being bad for the GOP. Corker’s primary win shows that even among Republicans, his opponents were too far to the right. A moderate would have more universal appeal.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I haven’t followed the race at all, although I do recognize Van Hilleary’s name, having briefly lived in Tennessee years ago (1995-6). Logically, though, if the moderate candidate was the one who emerged as the winner among the Republican nominating electorate, he has to be a stronger candidate than the others with middle-of-the-road general election voters.

    Ford is a very formidable candidate, though.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Also, Van Hilleary already lost a statewide race for governor (2002), which is usually not a good start for another statewide run.

  4. Anderson says:

    Concur with Johnson’s reasoning. The GOP base lives in its bubble where “everyone” agrees with them, & don’t realize there are a lot of middle-of-the road folks with some conservative values who are nonetheless turned off by the whole shebang.

    I noted the latest example of this during Operation “Save America” (aka “Rescue”) protests in Jackson, MS, including my neighborhood. People whom I knew to be both Republican & pro-life were heavily turned off by the protesters.

    I suspect that many “pro-life” folks have the same attitude about abortion that they do about gays: do it if you will, just don’t do it where we have to see/hear about it.

    (OT: what do the fundamentalists who cherish the King James Version think about having a known homosexual’s name on the spine of their Bibles?)

  5. Mr. Johnson writes:

    But in a state where the Republicans have a built-in advantage, it’s hard to see an African-American winning.

    Yeah, those Republicans are such racists, especially in Tennessee. I’ll be sure to reprimand all the Republican members of my family who live in Tennessee next time I see them.