By Hastings Wyman –
Incumbent Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is term-limited and as soon as the presidential election was over, Volunteer State politicos and pundits began to look toward the 2018 election to succeed him. Tennessee is solidly Republican, with the GOP controlling the governor’s office, both the state house and senate, both US Senate seats and six of its eight congressional seats. Last year, Donald Trump carried the state with 61% to Hillary Clinton’s 35%; Clinton carried three counties to Trump’s 92.
Tennessee has a recent history of solid, well-regarded governors running the state. Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, was a centrist Democrat who helped get the state’s finances in good shape. And Lamar Alexander (R), now a US Senator, had a reputation that helped him make strong, though ultimately unsuccessful presidential bids. So in 2018 voters here are likely to seek a repeat, a good, solid administrator who keeps the state’s agencies and institutions sufficiently funded and the taxes within reason. However, the record of the Trump Administration, as yet unpredictable, could influence even state campaigns in ways that are as yet unseen.
While several of the Republican candidates are close to Haslam in their center-right views and at least one other is more Tea Party-Donald Trump oriented, “I don’t know that there’s that much difference” in their views on state government, says a knowledgeable Nashville source.
There are six Republicans in various stages of considering a 2018 gubernatorial race.
US Rep. Diane Black will chair the House Budget Committee, assuming US Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) gets confirmed to head Health and Human Services. In the meantime, she will get plenty of attention as interim chair, dealing with the repeal/replace of Obamacare. She is personally wealthy.
Randy Boyd is stepping down from his position as Commissioner of Economic and Community Development on February 1 and will return to Radio Systems Corporation, a firm he founded in 1991. Boyd, who is personally wealthy, joined Haslam’s administration in 2013 as an advisor on higher education policy. Boyd “is more in the Haslam mode,” says one longtime observer of the state’s politics.
State Sen. Mark Green was the first likely contender to file papers setting up a campaign fund. Green is popular with the Tea Party folks and has enlisted Darren Morris, who ran Donald Trump’s campaign in the Volunteer State, as a campaign consultant. Green is a physician and has been involved in several medical-related businesses. He also has some cache as a veteran of the war in Iraq, where he was present at the capture of Saddam Hussein.
State House Speaker Beth Harwell has recently held a $2,500 a pop fundraiser; she already had a good pot of money that she can use if she runs for governor. While Harwell’s policies are close to those of Haslam, “she manages a large Republican majority with a lot of members who lean to the right,” says our Nashville source.
Bill Lee is chairman and former CEO of the Lee Company, a home service and facilities solutions company with annual revenues of some $160 million. Last year he began “traveling around and talking to community leaders and grassroots folks … trying to find out just what the people think about what’s most needed,” he told The Tennessean last May. He could self-finance a major share of his campaign. He has not formally entered the race, but is expected to soon.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is actively engaged with the state’s lawsuit against the federal government for failing to enforce the Refugee Act of 1980. The suit is based on the 10th Amendment, often cited by proponents of states’ rights. Depending in part on what happens in the Trump Administration, the issue of how to deal with undocumented immigrants could be hot in 2018.
Three Democrats are also considering the race:
Karl Dean, former mayor of Nashville, will decide whether to run by the end of March. While some Democrats aren’t pleased with his support for charter schools, he has expressed the hope that the state will be open to a more progressive message in 2018. Dean was deemed a successful mayor of the state’s capital; he is currently touring the state promoting his new book, which touts the city’s “booming” during his tenure as mayor, from 2007 to 2015.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh has acknowledged that he’s interested in running for governor and expects to decide once the current legislative session is over. He is a banker and lawyer from Ripley (pop. 8,000) on the Western edge of the state, and touts his appeal to both urban and rural voters. At the Davidson County (Nashville, etc.) holiday party in early January, Fitzhugh won the gubernatorial straw poll, with 26 out of 103 votes.
Real estate mogul Bill Freeman finished a close third in last year’s race for mayor of Nashville in which he largely self-funded ($3.8 million) his campaign. He is a former treasurer of the state Democratic Party, raised money for Barack Obama and hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Freeman told The Tennessean, “I don’t want to rule anything out or anything in.”
In the coming year, the roster of candidates could expand or shrink as 2018 gets closer. In any case, look for strong lists of contenders in both parties and a lively campaign. Stay tuned.