Capitol View Commentary: Friday, October 15, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, October 15, 2010

CREATED Oct 15, 2010


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

October 15, 2010


Early voting for the November 2nd election has begun in Tennessee (October 13) and will continue until the 28th.

Like nothing else in my political lifetime, early voting has had a profound impact on how campaigns are run. It used to be you wanted to peak your efforts just before or on Election Day. Now it seems you need to peak right before early voting and try and sustain it through Election Day. That's more than a two week period and, frankly, that makes things a lot tougher to do (and much more expensive).

That's why, even without looking at the calendar, you can tell early voting is underway, especially in our congressional races. The candidates' ads have now moved to the front part of the TV newscasts (frankly it's hard to miss them no matter when you turn on the tube). And now is the peak period for attack and counter attack ads, with outside groups now chipping in with their ads as well. These messages, which are not supposed to be coordinated with the candidates' campaigns (yeah, right), nevertheless always seem to dovetail together very nicely, thank you, delivering a crystal clear message to voters (usually with dark, foreboding music and really bad looking photos of the opponent or their political friends such President Obama or Speaker Pelosi).

It has often been said that attack ads are efforts to stop the momentum of the opposing candidate. And that's true. But I think another purpose of attack ads, especially this year with all the voter anger out there, is to get and keep your base supporters riled up so they don't get distracted somehow and fail to vote.

It is all part of the early voting blitz to get as many of your supporters to the polls as you can. And it clearly works, as we are routinely seeing 40-50% of the total vote now being cast before Election Day itself. That is clearly going to happen again this year, and that is not just because of the convenience of Early Voting it is also because of the way campaigns are operated these days, attack ads and counter attack ads, et. all.


While the Democrats nationally have been working hard the past month or so to lessen their likely defeats in these upcoming mid-term elections (where the party in power always loses seats in the Congress), as we head into the home stretch it appears to me sometimes the very headlines in the news are conspiring against them.

Just look at today's TENNESSEAN (October 15). There are stories about how the national debt has risen by another $1 trillion plus. That's not as much as last year, but pretty close. Then, there's the federal court ruling allowing those challenging the constitutionality of the new national health law to proceed. Both these news items are likely to further excite those in the Tea Party and other conservative groups to be even more energized to go to the polls.

Meanwhile another headline, the decision by the Obama administration to appeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ruling by another federal judge is likely to only make some key Democratic support groups decide that maybe they really do have things more important to do than vote come Election Day.

Well, maybe the rescue of the Chilean miners will help keep the voters in a better mood for the Democrats. But like the use of a canary by miners in the past to note potential problems coming, here in Tennessee, the omens for Democrats look even more dire especially in two local congressional races.

Of the open seats without incumbents, Democrats have long thought that State Senator Roy Herron was their best chance to win. But after an exchange of attack ads on both sides, it appears that Republican Stephen Fincher has the edge. Who thinks that? How about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has cancelled an advertising campaign to assist Herron down the stretch and pulled the funds to be spent elsewhere? Why did they do that? Well, it appears the Democratic leaders, with limited resources, think they have better prospects to win in other states and in other races, so Herron is being left to his own devices and resources.

One thing Herron is touting is all the newspaper endorsements he is garnering including THE TENNESSEAN here in Nashville as well as papers in Camden, Carroll County, Clarksville, Memphis, Fulton and Paris. But, newspaper endorsements are not what they used to be years ago, and it appears the "un-endorsement" by the national Democrats may be sending a louder message in the district.

Herron is blaming the national Democrats for pulling their funds because he spoke out against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (something which several Democratic candidates are doing including another Tennessee Democrat Sixth District candidate Brett Carter). But Carter told me on this week's INSIDE POLITICS show that's not why he believes he lost money coming from the national group (more on Carter's appearance later in this column).

So how does the 8th District race stand? Two new polls, one from Fincher's campaign, the other from THE HILL'S Midterm Election poll (released October 13), show Fincher holding a 10 point lead.

And it gets worse for the Democrats.

At the beginning of this election cycle, it appeared incumbent 4th District Congressman Lincoln Davis would be re-elected. Now that appears to be in some doubt.

Indications of Davis' problems began to surface when he unleashed a strong attack ad against his GOP opponent, Dr. Scott DesJarlais, focusing on some of the rather lurid and bizarre details of the physician's divorce from his first wife and his later requests to lower his child support payments.

When Davis appeared on INSIDE POLITICS just a few weeks ago, I asked him about this situation and he said his campaign was not pushing the matter, but that since, through campaign research, the national Democrats knew about it, perhaps they had been spreading the details about Dr. Desjarlais around the district.

Well, now that the Davis campaign has taken the offensive itself, it is pretty clear that the Congressman has changed his mind about how to handle this issue. Candidates, especially incumbents who are ahead or feel good about their races, don't do attack ads like this unless they are now concerned.

Saying the Davis TV attack ads have "backfired", the DesJarlais campaign has now released a new internal poll (October 15) which shows their candidate surging to 4 point lead in the race after earlier being 4 points behind, and then locked in a tie with the Congressman last week. It seems the national pollsters may agree about the movement in the race. The NEW YORK TIMES Five-Thirty-Eight forecasts for the 4th of District of Tennessee projected election results of 49.7% for DesJarlais with Davis at 47.9%, giving the Republican a 57.8% chance of winning with Davis now only a 42.2% change to prevail come November 2.

With Democrats all but conceding the 6th District race (where long-time incumbent Bart Gordon is stepping down) the loss of all three of these congressional seats, could chance the balance of power in our House delegation from 5-4 Democratic to 7-2 for the Republicans. Ouch!

And it doesn't get any better when you look at the latest poll numbers and fund raising disclosures in the governor's race.

A Rasmussen poll (October 11) now shows GOP candidate Bill Haslam continuing to widen his huge lead over Democrat Mike McWherter. It's now almost two-to-one, with 59% for Haslam and only 31% for McWherter with 2% preferring someone else and 7% still undecided.

These are the kind of poll numbers, combined with what is happening in several of the Tennessee congressional races, that must have state party leaders feeling sick to their stomachs about what could come down Election Night and how a GOP surge could have bad implications for Democrats trying to regain or hold on to seats in the State House and State Senate (where Republicans already hold majorities).

The gubernatorial fundraising is even more lopsided. Haslam, the Mayor of Knoxville, has now raised and spent a record (for governor's race) of almost $15 million, $5 million from his own pocket. Only Senator Bob Corker ($18 million) has raised and spent more in a Tennessee political campaign. As for McWherter, a Jackson businessman and beer distributor, he reports spending a little less than $2million total through the end of September. So how bad is it? In the third quarter alone, Haslam raised $3.149 million while McWherter generated just $275,000. That's a more than 10 to 1 ratio.

If this was a prize fight, it would be stopped and the mercy rule invoked. For now, that won't come until November 2. Democrats in Tennessee must be concerned about a possible record poor showing for a gubernatorial candidate, which in recent years is likely the John Jay Hooker campaign in 1998 which garnered only 287,750 votes while incumbent Don Sundquist cruised to re-election with 669,973 ballots.


Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper may be one of the few Tennessee Democrats who will have something to celebrate about come November 2. Although his GOP opponent, David Hall continues to tout how many voters contacts (in the tens of thousands) he and his campaign volunteers are making each weekend.

Cooper has started his second TV ad, and as I thought, he has once again found a humorous way to use his family to deliver his message, much as he did when first ran for this office back in 2002.

The ad concentrates on what a personal tight-wad Cooper is, with his wife and family, particularly his son, good-naturedly complaining about not even being able to buy things like a flat screen TV or a car. And then there is this very thread-bare looking shirt of Cooper's which his wife holds up to the camera, claiming he has been wearing it since college.

I am told this is a somewhat accurate portrayal of the Congressman in his personal life. He also has a long reputation in Washington for being a budget hawk (which, of course, also is mentioned in the ad). Frankly, several folks I know, who are good friends of the Congressman, say the ad is just hilarious.

I can find only one small thing to quibble about. Congressman, despite your comment at the end of the ad, it doesn't cost more to run a black & white ad on TV (the ad is shot black &white) as compared to running it in color. I am not even sure it costs more these days to produce the ad in black and white rather than color, although it might.

Regardless, I think everyone can get the message from the ad, and it is a very interesting one to me. One of the TV ads, David Hall is running, seems to criticize Cooper as someone who says one thing in Nashville, and then goes to Washington and votes another way. This ad seems to be a very subtle way to address that criticism without getting into some defensive, policy-wonk level rebuttal, which Congressman Cooper can do. It's just a lot more boring than this ad.

By the way, if Cooper is re-elected, he admits his fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House will be in for major changes. Along with losing to retirements, both Tennessee's Bart Gordon (6th District) and John Tanner (8th District), some incumbents may lose their re-election bids. In fact, Cooper told THE CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY's C-Q ROLL, that the group could lose half of its 54 members.



As I mentioned on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend, we are focusing on the 6th District congressional race between Republican Diane Black and Democrat Brett Carter.

I had an interesting discussion with both of them. Black, who has been a State Senator and House member for a total of 12 years, takes offense at being called a "career politician" by Carter. She says she's been a nurse for 40 years which is longer than Carter has been born. That's true, but serving 12 years as an elected official is some kind of career. I can understand Senator Black not wanting to be painted with the same brush that so many of her fellow GOP candidates are using in a negative way against their opponents. But it is what it is, and I don't think she should be acting like she's never been a politician or an elected official, even though she has always been here in Tennessee and not D.C.

She and Carter have some strong differences of opinion. She believes the federal government ought to have a required balanced budget every year, he believes that's not practical. She wants to eliminate the federal Head Start program because it doesn't work. Carter believes it is effective. He believes the new federal health care plan can be amended and made to work to reform a broken system. She believes "Obamacare" needs to be completely repealed which Carter says just can't happen politically even if the GOP takes over both the House and Senate (due to the Senate filibuster rule and a likely presidential veto).

Carter seems to believe he has a chance to win despite being underfunded and his comments that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ought to step down from leadership. That got national attention but also angered some Democratic labor groups.

By the way, I was asked not raise any questions with Senator Black about the ongoing lawsuit that involves a campaign ad done by her primary opponent, Lou Ann Zelenik. The Senator says there is a court gag order that prohibits her from making any comments and she added: "besides, it's not really my lawsuit." She didn't tell me who the lawsuit belonged but I assumed that meant what has been rumored in the past that the legal action has been pushed more by her husband and his company which were featured in the controversial ad.

Watch us on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network this weekend. We will be on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS several times and on the main channel (WTVF-TV) at 5:00 a.m. Sunday. On THE PLUS, you can see us at 7:00 p.m. tonight (Friday) as well as 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

We have now profiled almost all the congressional races in this part of the state, as well as the gubernatorial candidates. You can watch those previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here on at www.newchannel5.com.

Unfortunately, we may not get to do a show with the candidates in the 8th District. We are still trying but so far, Republican candidate Stephen Fincher has declined our invitation. We hope that can change, but given reports that he is declining other interviews and media appearances, it looks rather doubtful.


I didn't know this until a few days ago, but apparently TV's WHEEL OF FORTUNE host and former Nashville weatherman and personality, Pat Sajak, also does political commentary.

One his latest writings has caught some flak on the internet. Writing for the NATIONAL REVIEW ON LINE's THE CORNER (October 13), Sajak raises the issue of whether public employees could have a conflict of interest when it comes to voting in some elections. Pointing out that to avoid any appearances of conflicts, his family and friends can't be on his TV show, and that new the Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan can't rule on several pending cases because of her previous role as Solicitor General, Sajak ponders:

"I am not suggesting that public employees be denied the right to vote, but that there are certain cases in which their stake in the matter may be too great. Of course, we all have a stake in one way or another in most elections, and many of us tend to vote in favor of our own interests. However, if for example a ballot initiative appears that might cap the benefits of a certain group of state workers, should those workers be able to vote on the matter?"

Sajak says he realizes determining who should or shouldn't be able to vote based on conflicts "opens a Pandora's Box." He's right. In fact it has already opened up a Pandora's Box of criticism including this from Steven Benen in his POLITICAL ANIMAL column on THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY web site (October 14).

"…let's be perfectly clear about the merit of such an idea: this is crazy. Preventing Americans from voting based on whether they benefit from the outcome goes against the principles that allow for elections in the first place…..voters make decisions, rightly or wrongly, based on whether they expect to benefit directly or indirectly, from the results. …Democracy is not a game show."

I agree. Sajak's idea seems to be at least a couple of vowels short on its reasoning. Spin the wheel again, Pat.