As prospective candidates weigh special election races in the next three months for a state House seat and suburban school boards, there are also signs of life in Shelby County in the statewide races on the 2014 election ballot.
For Democrats there are the first stirrings of life in the party primary to determine who will carry the party banner against incumbent Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican.
There is a draft movement to get Memphis Democrat Sara Kyle to run, after state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, considered the primary but then dropped the idea.
For Republicans, it is the statewide race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Lamar Alexander. Last week, Alexander drew primary opposition when state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Rutherford County, announced he would challenge Alexander.
Former Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone is the West Tennessee co-chairman of the Run Sara Run political action committee. She is also running in the 2014 Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor in a local challenge of another Republican incumbent – Mark Luttrell.
“She knows how to campaign. She’s familiar with the issues that are important specifically to the families that are losing,” Malone said of Kyle. “With some of the action in Nashville, we need somebody that won’t be afraid of the legislature, that will be able to fight for the working-class individual.”
Kyle is one of only two women to ever hold a statewide elected office. She and Jane Eskind each won statewide races for seats on the old Tennessee Public Service Commission. Eskind, who was the first woman to win statewide office, later ran unsuccessful statewide campaigns in the Democratic primaries for governor and U.S. Senate.
The Kyle draft movement has no dollar goal by a certain date but is using the fundraising to turn out college Democratic support at the Sept. 4 annual Jackson Day Dinner in Nashville.
“She has not told us how soon she is going to make a decision,” Malone said. “I think she is listening right now.”
So is Shelby County Republican party chairman Justin Joy as he looks for potential Democratic challengers in the statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate next year.
“I’m not saying that there is going to be an empty spot come next November in the ‘D’ column for the candidates,” Joy said. “It may be a possibility. But you saw what happened last year with their U.S. Senate candidate. I think they are trying to at a minimum avoid a repeat of that situation.”
Joy is referring to the candidacy of Mark Clayton, who won the 2012 Democratic nomination to oppose Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. The state Democratic party disavowed Clayton for his stands on racial issues after ignoring his candidacy in the primary. Nevertheless Clayton carried Shelby County in the general election as Corker easily won re-election statewide.
Democrats are expected to have a challenger for Alexander in 2014. But the major development last week was the emergence of Carr as a tea party-backed challenger in the August Republican primary.
Carr was expected to run for some other office in 2014 and was assembling a campaign team before announcing the intra-party challenge of Alexander. Among the first reactions to his decision was notice from former state party chairman Chip Saltsman that he was leaving Carr’s campaign apparatus because of the challenge of Alexander.
Joy said the local party won’t take sides in the primary.
“The primary process plays itself out amongst voters at an individual level,” he said. “In some aspects, it’s not necessarily a surprise that another candidate has emerged. It’s still a little bit early, but given the amount of money that has to be raised to mount a serious statewide campaign, the time is certainly coming for people to make some decisions and see what they are going to do.”
What happens in Shelby County during such intra-party contests is important to the statewide results.
“Shelby County, at least in some regards, is just about the last Democratic stronghold in this state,” Joy said. “But at the same time, of the 95 counties in Tennessee, no fewer than one out of 10 Republican primary votes cast across the state come from Shelby County. So it certainly plays a very important and quite possibly decisive role in deciding who Republican nominees are in statewide primary contests.”