With their dream candidate in 2006, then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrats came within 3 points of picking up an open Senate seat.
Now, they may turn to one of two politically untested but personally wealthy candidates for a long-shot chance at knocking off first-term Sen. Lamar Alexander (R).
The two possible Democratic candidates are Bob Tuke, a lawyer and former state Democratic chairman, and Mike McWherter, a businessman who is the son of popular former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter (D). Both have promised to decide on whether to run by Labor Day.
Republicans do not appear to be sweating Alexander’s re-election prospects at this point. And even Democrats concede they will have their work cut out for them in a state that has been trending away from them, particularly during federal elections.
Its native son, then-Vice President Al Gore, lost to George W. Bush by 4 points in 2000. A victory at home would have given Gore the presidency.
Bush improved his performance in the state in 2004, winning by 14 points. In fact, Gore is the last Democrat to win a Senate election in Tennessee, back in 1990.
“No one should be naive enough to think that Alexander wouldn’t be very difficult to beat,” Tuke said in an interview. “On the other hand, this election could be a true watershed. If Bush sticks with what he’s doing now, which is to ignore everybody else, and only a couple stick with him, which right now is Alexander, it could be like the Titanic.”
Tuke and his successor as state party chairman, Gray Sasser, made clear that they would try to tie Alexander to Bush.
“The issue Alexander is going to have to confront is, in recent weeks he’s been more conciliatory, but he still votes with President Bush 94 percent of the time, and we’re going to remind voters of that,” said Sasser, the son of former Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.).
Although Tuke noted that last month Alexander charted a moderate course by teaming with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) on a bill to implement the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, “that is very little and quite late,” he said. “If he continues to be a Bush [supporter], these issues are too important to let go on and I may very seriously consider running against him.”
He added, “My decision could be based on what Alexander does. If he starts to be a Senator from Tennessee, which has a notion of independence, maybe I won’t run against him. But he better get busy.”
McWherter, meanwhile, would bring considerable name identification to the table.
“I think the name ID will be helpful to him, even though Gov. McWherter hasn’t been in office for 12 years,” Tuke said. Ned McWherter succeeded Alexander as governor and served from 1987 to 1995. “He’s been around and sort of been a fixture in Tennessee politics. Everyone still knows Ned McWherter, and we still talk about him.”
Mike McWherter also has personal wealth — he runs a beer distribution company in the western part of the state — and Tuke said that although he might contribute to his own campaign, McWherter would be in a better position to self-fund.
“Either one of us would have to raise a bunch of money,” Tuke said.
Other than to confirm his timetable for announcing whether he would run, McWherter said he did not want to comment.
Although Alexander was mentioned as a good fit for the open chancellor’s position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he announced in July he would run for re-election.
He raised $560,000 in the quarter ending June 30 and had $1.04 million in cash on hand.
Tuke headed the party during the 2006 cycle in which Ford lost to now-Sen. Bob Corker (R) and Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) cruised to a second term with 69 percent of the vote and carried every county.
But if Democrats couldn’t win an open seat in the favorable environment of 2006, how can they knock off Alexander, a former two-term governor and two-time presidential candidate?
“The answer is we won’t have extraneous factors,” Tuke said, referring to the legal troubles of Ford’s relatives as well as a Republican ad run late in the campaign that critics described as race-baiting.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better candidate except for two things: One was the fact that there were negative associations with his name politically and all over the media all year long,” Tuke said. “So every time Ford would be mentioned in the media, there was always the ‘but,’ the reference to his uncle.
“The other thing was the Republicans played the race card, and I’m still not sure … Ford rejects this, to his everlasting credit, rejects the notion that the race issue caused him to be defeated. I don’t know, but I know they played the card, and that probably hurt.”
While Tuke and Sasser said they think the McWherter name would be an asset, they are banking that the Alexander brand has lost its luster.
“People my age know him and think of him positively as a governor,” said Tuke, 59. “But so many people are new to Tennessee and don’t know him that he may not be as entrenched as I thought he might be.”
Republicans scoff at the notion that Alexander is unfamiliar to voters and could be in any kind of electoral jeopardy.
“Sen. Alexander’s record of experience can’t be matched by [McWherter or Tuke],” Tennessee GOP Chairwoman Robin Smith said. “He has on-the-job training and is the foundation of the Republican Party here. … I don’t see how there will be a very credible race against Sen. Alexander.”