Those who have worked in the campaign business for the better part of their professional lives can walk into almost any statewide campaign headquarters in the contest’s final months and, just by the vibe and feel, walk out five minutes later with a fairly accurate picture of a campaign’s viability, sense of purpose and level of professionalism.
But with the TN GOP Senate primary between Van Hilleary, Ed Bryant, Bob Corker and Beth Harwell still over one year away, a regular check of the candidates’ websites, their level of press activity, early fundraising data, an assessment of candidate-funded polls and informal conversations with GOP consultants in DC and TN, will have to serve as a proxy for a campaign hq drop by.
Thus far, considering all of the above, Ed Bryant must be considered the front-runner.
Bryant, who made the intelligent decision to hire consultant Sonny Scott to direct his campaign, is laying down in methodical, diligent fashion the brick by brick, county by county, voter by voter effort that pays off in the end. Bryant’s campaign is also completely dominating the earned media information flow at this point, launching a regular flurry of news releases both to tout positive campaign developments and take a few shots at Hilleary and Corker.
What many don’t understand is that despite the fact 90% of this early press activity doesn’t even get covered, it provides a perceptual boost among grass roots GOP activists, money people and the handful of reporters already tuned in to the race this early. This is important, not just because it helps influence fundraising, but because it helps establish a preliminary pecking order, along with whatever public and private numbers are floating around in the spin backwash.
Several days ago, Bryant dumped out some new numbers from his pollster, Ethridge & Associates, showing Bryant with 34.2%, Hilleary with 16.4%, Corker with 6.4% and Harwell at 2.4%. One DC Republican with a good deal of statewide Tennessee experience, suggested that while he thinks Bryant does indeed lead, it’s likely with a smaller margin over Hilleary — more like a 10-12 point lead. Nevertheless, the 4.4% MoE can easily account for the Bryant results, and the timing of the data release was perfect — coinciding with FEC quarterly reporting and a slow early summer news environment. One can be certain this info, despite its source, is percolating through the GOP fundraising community in Tennesee and Washington.
Scott, a veteran of the ’94 Frist TN GOP primary, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), and a variety of other campaigns, has also seen to it that Hilleary and Corker are hounded by alleged vulnerabilities — which become real after much repetition.
From the standpoint of the Bryant campaign, Hilleary is a prior statewide loser to Gov. Phil Bredesen who ran a lousy general election campaign, and who will do so again — possibly against Dem Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who should not be taken lightly. Interestingly, the Bryant campaign released the fact that Hilleary leads Corker 31% to 8% in a gubernatorial primary — data that gives ammo to those local GOP conservative activists who don’t want to make a choice between Bryant and Hilleary, and that can, in theory, be used to suggest to Hilleary he should again run for Governor, not the Senate. On the flipside, of course, the release of this question is a sure sign the Bryant camp sees Hilleary as an ongoing threat.
Bob Corker, meanwhile, according to the Bryant camp, has a tax increase problem from his days as Chattanooga Mayor, and is inconsistent on right to life issues. Moreover, they say, his fundraisers are liberals who have backed TN Democrats for years.
Corker, easily the best campaigner of the group, has hired top tier media consultant, Scotty Howell, and in intent on raising a big pile of money. Just as Frist outspent Corker significantly in the hotly-contested ’94 GOP primary, Corker would logically seek to develop a huge cash on hand advantage for the paid media endgame. One observer said Corker’s obvious victory scenario would involve Hilleary and Bryant slugging it out for a majority of conservatives, thus splitting that key determinative primary constituency, and then getting all of the "moderates" as well as just enough conservatives to put him over the top. Very, very dicey proposition to thread the needle in that fashion.
From a full disclosure standpoint, I’ve contributed financially to Corker’s ’06 campaign, have worked for him in the past, and believe he would be an excellent U.S. Senator. Hilleary, who like Corker has yet to establish and convey a clear, concise rationale for his candidacy, has a good geographic base upon which to build support, but is virtually invisible compared to Bryant.
Bottom line: Still early, but Ed Bryant is setting the pace in this contest. We’ll take another look at this increasingly interesting race in the fall.