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Tennessee GOP Waltz: Big Senate Primary Unusual This Cycle

The 2006 Tennessee Senate race features a rarity in modern-day politics: a wide-open primary with four well-known candidates.

Two former Members of Congress, a big-city mayor and a former state party chairwoman have announced their intent to seek the Republican nomination to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R).

“This is the deepest field we have ever seen in Tennessee by far,” said Mike Tuffin, a Republican lobbyist with APCO

Worldwide and close observer of the Volunteer State’s politics. “It wasn’t that long ago that Tennessee was a Democratic state.”

In fact, in 1990 then-Sen. Al Gore (D) carried every county in his re-election bid.

The Tennessee primary stands in stark contrast to several other hotly contested Senate races in 2006 in which one party has weighed in to eliminate serious primary competition.

The most high-profile example is in Pennsylvania, where national Democrats — aided by Gov. Ed Rendell — pushed former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer out of the race to make way for current state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.

Casey, the son of a popular former governor, is the odds-on nominee to face Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in November 2006.

Republicans have followed a similar blueprint in the open-seat Minnesota Senate race.

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) quickly secured the backing of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) despite the fact that former Sen. Rod Grams (R) is also in the contest.

Grams protested publicly but to no avail.

A look back at the 2004 cycle shows the lack of a serious primary challenge is far from a sure sign of general election success.

In North Carolina and South Carolina, national Democrats worked hard to clear the field for 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles and state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, respectively.

Bowles was defeated by then-Rep. Richard Burr (R), who himself had no primary opposition.

Tenenbaum lost the general election to then-Rep. Jim DeMint, who had emerged from a contested four-way Republican primary and runoff.

Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant working with former Rep. Van Hilleary — one of the four candidates in the Tennessee Republican field — said the number of quality GOP candidates in the race represents the growing Republican nature of the state.

“The reason you see a high-caliber field is that the Republican nominee will be the Senator,” he said. “In federal races social issues matter a whole lot more and Democrats are unable to separate themselves from national baggage.”

In 2004, Democrats lost all five of their open seats in the South, the major factor in their overall four-seat loss.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is the likely Democratic Senate nominee in Tennessee, though even some in his own party admit he faces an uphill fight regardless of whom Republicans nominate.

Aside from Hilleary, former 7th district Rep. Ed Bryant, state Rep. Beth Harwell and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker are in the GOP field.

Hilleary, Bryant and Corker have all run unsuccessfully statewide; Hilleary lost to now-Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in 2002; Bryant was defeated in a 2002 Senate Republican primary by former Gov. Lamar Alexander, who went on to win the general election; and Corker lost to Frist in the 1994 Senate primary.

Harwell served as state party chairwoman for the past four years.

All four candidates have shown an ability to raise significant funds in the past.

Hilleary brought in nearly $8 million in 2002, while Corker and Bryant raised more than $1 million in their respective Senate campaigns. Harwell currently represents a suburban Nashville state House district that is the wealthiest in the state.

Corker is the early money favorite for 2006; he shocked the political establishment by raising more than $2 million in the final three months of 2004 — a record take at that point in the cycle.

The field is also relatively diverse geographically. Bryant is strong in west Tennessee, while Harwell’s base is in Nashville. Corker and Hilleary are east Tennesseans, which is where roughly 50 percent of the vote in the Republican primary originates.

Even so, several candidates and strategists acknowledged that a winnowing process is likely before the filing deadline on April 6, 2006.

“The differentiation is electability,” Hilleary said. “It might dawn on some as the campaign goes down the track that their electability is not as good as mine.”

Harwell said that “there is a lot that can happen personally and professionally” between now and the filing deadline, adding: “At this point in time I am seriously in the race and planning on running.”

Tuffin, who is not aligned with anyone in the current field, said Corker’s fundraising strength ensures that he will be one of the last people standing in the August 2006 primary, but whom he will face remains an open question.

“This time next year we are going to know it is Bob Corker and one of the other three that has emerged as the alternative,” Tuffin said. “It is partly about money but is also about who can win the hearts and minds of Tennessee voters.”

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