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VOL. 7 | NO. 44 | Saturday, October 25, 2014

Alexander vs. Ball

The changing political ground beneath Tennessee’s Senate race

By Bill Dries

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Lamar Alexander and Gordon Ball were on the same campaign trail but different races at about this time 36 years ago.

Alexander was making his second bid for Tennessee governor after failing in 1974 and Ball was running for an East Tennessee congressional seat.

The U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander, left, and Democrat Gordon Ball is a sign of the changing political ground.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig; AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Alexander was a Republican in a predominantly Democratic Southern state that had only recently elected its first Republican governor, Memphian Winfield Dunn, in nearly half a century.

Ball was an East Tennessee Democrat running in the one reliably Republican part of the state since the Civil War.

Alexander won. Ball lost.

For Alexander it was the second of six campaigns – three for governor, and three for the U.S. Senate including his current re-election bid in which Ball is his Democratic challenger on the Nov. 4 ballot.

For Ball this is his return to the political arena after 36 years away. While he initially believed Alexander might ignore him with a textbook incumbent’s campaign, Alexander has aggressively gone after Ball, relentlessly painting Ball as “just another vote” for Democratic President Barack Obama’s agenda.

“If he went to Washington in the Senate he wouldn’t even need to go. He could just let (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid vote twice,” Alexander said this month in an interview on the third day of the early voting period.

Ball has portrayed Alexander as an “irrelevant” out of touch career politician, indebted to Washington beltway power brokers, who got a real scare in the primary from more conservative elements in the Republican Party.

“I think he has really changed. … I always perceived Lamar Alexander as a middle of the roader kind of guy. He has tried to remake himself. I think he’s afraid of a faction in his own party,” Ball said in an interview in Memphis last month. “You can’t change things in Washington until you change the people in Washington.”

Ball added that he would challenge not only Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell but Reid as well, if elected.

“I’m not going to vote for what you say just because you’re a Democrat or just because you’re a Republican,” Ball said. “If you’re right, I’ll vote for you. If you’re wrong, I’ll vote for the other side.”

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is participating in his sixth campaign in Tennessee,  his third for U.S. Senate after three for governor.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Alexander said his bid for a third term is motivated by the possibility Republicans will become the majority in the chamber with the November elections and the agenda they will then set. He wants to be part of that and rates the likelihood of a Republican majority at 55 percent to 60 percent.

The general election Senate race isn’t at the top of the Nov. 4 ballot. But with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam facing only a token Democratic challenge in the governor’s race, the Senate race is the liveliest of the two statewide races that is competing for the attention of voters.

Alexander came out of the primary swinging at Ball – by name.

“He’s a very good lawyer,” Alexander said this month of Ball. “If you’re a convicted cocaine smuggler and you are guilty and you want somebody to persuade the jury that you’re not, he’s the guy you’d want to do it.”

Alexander didn’t mount such a campaign in the primary, despite a “Beat Lamar” effort by tea party forces in the state who interviewed prospective primary challengers and chose state Rep. Joe Carr.

Alexander termed Carr’s challenge a “good aggressive campaign” and the Republican primary that he won with 49 percent of the vote, while losing to Carr in his home county, a “family discussion.”

“Will those people who voted against Lamar Alexander vote for a moderate Democrat who shares their views — but I've got a 'D' in front of my name?”

–Gordon Ball

“I said I would like to get the family back together after the primary and I think I will have a better chance to do it if I respect my opponents and don’t run ads against them,” he said. “And that’s been true. Most of the Carr supporters that I’ve talked to want a Republican majority. They don’t want a senator who is another vote for Barack Obama and they are supporting me.”

Ball has said he hopes to win support in the general election from tea party partisans who backed Carr. He notes that Carr has yet to endorse Alexander.

“I’ve said from day one I’m against Common Core … and I’m against amnesty,” Ball said, referring to the statewide education standards used in Tennessee and most of the other 49 states and immigration reform. “That’s what Joe Carr beat Lamar Alexander over the head with. … Will those people who voted against Lamar Alexander vote for a moderate Democrat who shares their views – but I’ve got a ‘D’ in front of my name?”

“If he wants to do that, he should have run in the Republican primary,” Alexander replied, noting Carr also campaigned heavily on the immigration issue attempting to say Alexander supported amnesty. “That’s over. We’ve had that discussion.”

Alexander voted for an immigration reform bill in June 2013 that originated in the Senate among Republican and Democratic senators and passed there but ultimately never became law.

“The big difference in the Republican primary over the last 40 years is it's gotten huge. ... It's more conservative. It's spread out in Middle and West Tennessee more.”

–Lamar Alexander

He argued it fixed a “broken immigration system” and that the Congress had a responsibility to do that. Alexander also touted the increase of 20,000 border patrol agents under the bill and the construction of 700 miles of upgraded or new fencing as well as new security technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The bill ends de facto amnesty and creates a system of legal immigration,” he said in the immediate aftermath of his vote.

Ball remains critical.

“It’s sort of like somebody breaking into your house and then giving them a cookie. I believe in the rule of law,” he said, advocating that those who immigrated illegally but have found work should be “at the back of the line if they want to be a citizen and get in line the way you are supposed to get in line.”

Alexander is aware that some of the Republicans with him in the founding of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee have said in recent years that moderates like his mentor, Howard Baker, couldn’t win the party’s nomination for statewide office today. Alexander is the only one of those moderates from that era still running for office and he hasn’t described himself as a moderate at least since his brief bid for the presidency in the mid-1990s.

Baker, who died in June, is listed as an honorary campaign co-chairman for Alexander’s campaign.

“We’ll know after November whether that’s true or not,” Alexander said when asked whether he is considered conservative enough to win a third term in the Senate. “This is the sixth one I’ve run in and I won it with about the same percentage,” he said comparing his August primary percentages to the percentage he won the nomination with in the 2002 Senate Republican primary that featured a hard-fought campaign with U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant after incumbent Republican Sen. Fred Thompson decided not to seek re-election.

“The big difference in the Republican primary over the last 40 years is it’s gotten huge. When Sen. Baker was elected in 1966 there were 150,000 voters in the Republican primary. This year there were 660,000,” Alexander said. “It’s larger. It’s more conservative. It’s spread out in Middle and West Tennessee more than it was years ago. But I was able to be nominated again by the Republican Party … by about the same margin I won by in 2002.”

Democrats, including Ball, now talk of the necessity of Tennessee being a “two-party state.”

The words they use are almost the same ones Alexander used in past years to describe the state as Republicans and Democratic office holders held the various elected seats of power at the federal and state levels.

“It’s a rambunctious group and it makes for an interesting primary but it makes for a very successful political party so far,” Alexander says of today’s Republican Party.

And that’s how many Democratic leaders used to describe their party in its more successful days before the 2000 presidential election when Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush carried Tennessee, the home state of Democratic nominee and then-Vice President Al Gore.

Democratic Senate candidate Gordon Ball, center, criticizes incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander for refusing to participate in debates, during a press conference on the steps of the state Capitol in Nashville, in September. Looking on are former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, right, and state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron.

(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Today, Democrats hold two of the state’s nine congressional seats. Republicans hold the other seven, both U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s mansion and super majorities in the state House and the state Senate.

“The Tennesseans who were head of Democrats for Alexander in Dyer County in 1978 are chairmen of the Republican Party today. And that’s true throughout rural West Tennessee,” Alexander said. “A lot of Shelby County, when I first began to run, was composed of Republicans, independents and Democrats and most of the independents now vote in the Republican primary. Our party is larger, more conservative and more successful because we’ve had an open door in the primary.”

In 1978, Alexander was wearing the red plaid flannel shirt in his campaign walk across the state that would make him a part of the state’s political folklore. After two terms as governor, Alexander went against the advice of many in the state’s Republican establishment and took a break from politics – moving with his family to Australia for six months. Two years before the end of his second term as governor, he had passed on running for the U.S. Senate seat his mentor Howard Baker was giving up.

When he returned from Australia, Alexander became president of the University of Tennessee through 1991. He left the university presidency to serve as U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

He returned to elected office nine years later in 2002 when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Thompson.

It was an unprecedented second act in an already storied political life. Andrew Johnson had been elected Tennessee governor and he served as a U.S. senator before and after becoming president but Johnson served in the Senate at a time when senators were appointed and not popularly elected.

Ball has an equally compelling if lesser-known story.

He is the son of an East Tennessee moonshiner who lived with his parents in a trailer next to his grandparents’ house.

Ball describes his father as a great guy who went straight after doing prison time.

“He was a moonshiner and when he got out of the federal housing authority that he was in, my mother made him get a job,” he said. “I don’t know that he ever got the moonshining out of his soul. But he was the kind of guy who could walk into a room and he lit up the room. He always thought everybody was his friend and not everybody was his friend. But he always thought that.”

Ball says Cocke County was so Republican there were usually no Democratic primaries on the ballot there.

Before the unsuccessful run for Congress, Ball was elected as a delegate to the state’s 1977 Constitutional Convention and became vice chairman. But a year later he was out of the game after the unsuccessful challenge of Republican U.S. Rep. Jimmy Quillen, who by 1978 was at the peak of his political power in East Tennessee – the 15th year of what would be 34 years in office – the longest consecutive tenure of any Tennessean to serve in the U.S. House.

“I never ran again,” Ball said. “I decided that God had put me on Earth to practice law and that’s what I was going to do.”

Ball has touted his representation of clients in environmental and anti-trust cases against big corporations he says have abused the powerless. He’s also a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Ball earned his law degree at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law after graduating from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. He moved to Memphis while taking a year off between the two to earn money for law school. He taught school, delivered pizzas and for a time worked at the Kroger loading docks on Florida Street.

“I didn’t need to be going to Knoxville to the University of Tennessee. I knew too many people there,” he said of the choice to come to Memphis. “I was afraid I wouldn’t study. I didn’t know anybody in Memphis. I thought I’ll go down there and I’ll be a monk for two years and I’ll study and that’s what I did and then I went back.”

Ball campaigned in the August primary on not only unifying Democrats again but broadening the party’s appeal to those same independent voters with candidates who have crossover potential.

He also mostly self-financed the effort recognizing he would have to build name recognition.

In the summer Democratic Senate primary, Ball was criticized by rival Democrat and fellow Knoxville attorney Terry Adams for not only those views but for his support of Haslam’s election in 2010.

Adams is now campaigning for Ball.

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