GOP’s Tennessee Waltz

Posted April 22, 2008 at 6:57pm

It seems like every fundraising quarter there are always one or two incumbents who get caught by surprise by a pesky challenger who slips under the radar and manages to put away a few more dollars in the bank, which in turn makes for a few days of “sleeper campaign” headlines in an otherwise quiet race.

Well, this quarter that incumbent is Rep. Lincoln Davis (D), that challenger is health care executive Monty Lankford (R) and that race is in Tennessee’s 4th district.

After filing for the race in mid-January, Lankford ended the quarter with $201,116 in the bank, according to his first-quarter Federal Election Commission report. Davis reported $199,306 on hand as of March 31.

Now, it’s easy to split hairs about some of the finer points of each campaign’s first-quarter numbers. For instance, Davis gave the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a $50,000 donation at the very end of the quarter and Lankford seeded his campaign with about $33,500 of his own money.

But the fact remains that at the end of the reporting period Lankford’s cash on hand total topped Davis’. And as Lankford officially kicks off his campaign this week with a bus tour across the conservative middle Tennessee district, he and his Republican supporters in the state and on Capitol Hill are making much of his fundraising success.

“He’s obviously worked very hard and because he’s worked so hard people are paying attention,” said Darcy Anderson, spokeswoman for Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) campaign.

“Monty Lankford’s strong fundraising numbers speak for themselves and he is proving to be a candidate with potential,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain on Tuesday. “One can only venture to guess that Lincoln Davis’ poor performance has something to do with the fact that he is no longer interested in representing his district due to his personal political ambitions of one day running for another office.”

Spain was alluding to the fact that Davis is considered a serious contender for the governor’s mansion in 2010 and even admitted his own interest in the post in stories that appeared in local papers last October.

But make no mistake: The 2008 House race will be an uphill battle for Lankford.

“I think probably [Davis] had his sight set on governor. It’s no secret he wants to run for governor,” said one Tennessee political consultant on Tuesday. “Now he’s got a self-funder [in his race] and he’s probably playing catch-up to some extent. But Lincoln Davis is perfect for that district and I have no doubt he will be able to raise whatever he needs to win and I suspect he will win handily.”

Lankford’s campaign also has a few big hurdles to overcome as it tries to take down the third-term Blue Dog Democrat. To begin with, Lankford isn’t the only GOP candidate in the race. Lankford is facing two other Republicans in the August primary: businessman and Marine Corp veteran Kent Greenough and respiratory therapist and Army veteran Don Strong.

And then there’s the little fact that Lankford doesn’t live inside the 4th Congressional district.

“I lay my head in the 7th district but my heart, my life … my energy my business is in the 4th district,” Lankford said in a telephone interview between campaign stops on Tuesday. Lankford pointed out that five of his 12 medical equipment business locations are in the 4th district and he employs around 30 4th district residents through that business. He said his home in Franklin is just five miles from the northwest border of the 4th district and that he owns land in two counties that are split between the 4th and 7th districts.

Lankford said he’s contemplating a move into the 4th district before the election but state election law doesn’t require him to live there.

“The Democrats like to raise a little cain about [his living outside the district] but the thing about them is that their head is in the 4th district but their hearts are far from it,” Lankford said.

Lankford has never run for office before but he has been very involved in local Republican groups and in fundraising for local and federal elections — which might explain his quick fundraising success so far in his campaign. Before former Sen. Fred Thompson (R) ended his presidential bid, Lankford served on the campaign’s Tennessee finance committee.

Lankford decided to throw his hat into the race this year because he said Davis isn’t living up to the conservative message he preaches.

“Lincoln talks this talk that he’s pro-life and pro-Second Amendment but he goes right to Washington and he votes for Nancy Pelosi, who absolutely is an enemy of pro-life and Second Amendment people,” Lankford said. “He needs to take a stand against all those left wing liberals up there.”

On Tuesday, Davis’ chief of staff, Beecher Frasier, said the campaign would have no comment on Lankford or any other GOP candidate in the 4th district until the Republicans actually pick their nominee.

But Frasier did take exception to the fact that the NRCC was implying that the Congressman is looking beyond his 2008 campaign this year.

“Our sole focus is winning in November,” Frasier said. “The 212,000 miles that are on [Davis’] black Dodge pickup truck shows his continued commitment to the 4th Congressional district.”

But while Frasier chose not to discuss Lankford’s campaign, Tennessee Democratic Party Communications Director Wade Munday was happy to give his take on Lankford’s campaign.

Lankford’s “out of district candidacy proves how out of touch he is,” Munday said. If you take into account Lankford’s personal wealth and the fact that the GOP is badly losing the Congressional fundraising race to Democrats, Lankford is “basically all [Republicans] have at the moment so they are going to tout him and applaud any positive message they can.”