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VOL. 9 | NO. 9 | Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Moving Election

The 2016 presidential primaries come to Tennessee

By Bill Dries

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The Trump balloons were a late arrival to the Shelby County Republican party’s annual Lincoln Day Gala, the local party’s largest annual fundraiser.

They were an unsubtle accent in a room of 500 people where unabashed hand-to-hand campaigning kept the buzz of conversation at a steady level for most of the evening.

Much of the overt campaigning was among the local Republican contenders for the 8th Congressional District seat incumbent Stephen Fincher is giving up.

But the March 1 Tennessee presidential primaries – one of 13 primaries or caucuses on the same day – are undeniable draws.

There was a Marco Rubio autographed hat and book in the silent auction. A Rubio supporter wearing a lapel sticker confessed that he was wearing a Donald Trump brand tie.

“I can’t help it. They are good ties,” he told County Commission chairman Terry Roland, who is leading the local Trump effort.

“Will you work with us if (Donald) Trump wins?” Roland asked, getting to the point immediately. He got no answer.

Elsewhere in the crowd there were supporters of Ohio Gov. John Kasich wearing lapel stickers. Kasich was due in Memphis Friday, Feb. 26, with more of the contenders – Republican and Democratic – certain to put in appearances before the March 1 primary election day.

Ted Cruz drew a large and enthusiastic crowd during the summer at Agricenter International.

Rubio and Jeb Bush held private fundraisers in the county this fall.

The Lincoln Day silent auction included two autographed posters from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s brief 1996 run for the presidency.

The red and black plaid-themed post was for a “walking tour” across New Hampshire of “Concord to Nashua to the Sea.”

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife at Whitehaven High School and less than a week later Vice President Joe Biden visited the area – each with very different ways of appealing to voters.

That’s just about where the 2016 Republican presidential primaries were as Alexander and fellow U.S. Sen. Bob Corker spoke on Feb. 20 to the local Republican gathering. As they spoke Trump won the South Carolina primary with Rubio and Cruz in a virtual tie for second and third.

“We’re a long way from having a nominee,” Alexander said, likening the debates among the Republican contenders to watching “the mud wrestling channel.”

“I think we should turn our nomination process over to the National Football League,” he said. “Everybody tries to put the Super Bowl of presidential politics at the beginning instead of the end. We need to let this process run all the way through to the end. We need to get down to two candidates.”

The primaries are a moving political contest that moves slowly in the context of these social-media fueled times.

The candidates are also changing as the scenery changes in the dual races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. Thirteen states in one election day is the point at which campaigns cede states to the other contenders and do the math to figure how to get the most effort into the states where they realistically have a chance, but in which the race is close.

Corker confessed that he’s been watching political news coverage more than he normally does in recent weeks.

“The American people obviously are very angry right now. It’s interesting,” he said. “It’s on both sides of the aisle. I think that the American people know that we still are failing to address the central issues to make this country flourish in the way we’d like to see it flourish, and be safe.”

One of those issues is what Corker said is the Republican party’s need to acknowledge and address the nation’s “wealth gap.”

“We’re not talking much about that now,” Corker told the ballroom full of Republicans.

Earlier he said both parties ignore it at their own peril as it fuels some of the anger reflected in the earlier primary choices.

Supporters of Republican presidential contenders Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Donald Trump were among those who gathered in February for the local GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Gala. Meanwhile U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker avoided an endorsement of any presidential candidate saying the party should nominate someone with crossover appeal.

“It does exist and they wonder how it is that those of us who create policy are going to help solve that problem, creating an environment for people’s standards of living to rise,” Corker said.

It’s been about 16 years since Memphians had a political figure running for president that they had some history with – the candidacy of former U.S. senator and Vice President Al Gore who became the Democratic presidential nominee. It’s more recent on the Republican side where former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee carried Shelby County in the 2008 Tennessee presidential primary.

Huckabee’s next-door-neighbor appeal, however, paled in comparison to the popularity of another former Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton. Yet Clinton’s decades-long cultivation of Memphis Democrats wasn’t transferrable to his wife Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination the first time. Shelby County went for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama even though the former first lady, U.S. senator and future Secretary of State carried the state in the Democratic primary.

The Memphis campaign apparatus of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders includes former Shelby County commissioner and Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Matt Kuhn, who worked as a volunteer in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and in Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.

Kuhn has run other people’s campaigns for a living.

“The first four states of a presidential campaign are retail politics,” Kuhn told Sanders supporters. “It goes from retail to wholesale real quick. We have the power in this state to make this a retail state for Bernie Sanders.”

Kuhn and Sanders’ traveling staff, fresh from the Iowa caucuses, have set up shop just a few blocks west on Poplar Avenue from the Clinton office.

And they made it clear at their February opening that they are going after the same Memphis voters as Clinton – African-American Democrats who supported Bill Clinton in his two presidential campaigns in the 1990s and then supported Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen was among those who backed Obama early in the 2008 primary skirmish when Clinton was the favorite for the nomination.

He headed up the effort to turn out the Democratic base locally for Obama’s 2012 re-election effort.

He declared early on for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But he doesn’t like what’s he’s been hearing between the two camps on the primary road to Tennessee.

The Memphis Bernie Sanders headquarters opened just a few blocks from the local Hillary Clinton headquarters with both campaigns appealing to Memphis Democrats who supported Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

“I don’t want anybody in our campaign to say anything bad about Bernie Sanders,” Cohen said at the opening of the Memphis Clinton campaign headquarters.

“Most of the bills we’ve sponsored together and most of the places we’ve gone to speak on issues — we haven’t been successful because Bernie and I see things in a big way,” he said of his work with Sanders on legislation. “Some of the things where we agree, you agree. But they aren’t going to happen. It’s unfortunate.”

“We lost in New Hampshire but we are not going to lose here,” Andrew Markoff said at the Feb. 18 opening of the Hillary Clinton Memphis headquarters.

Markoff came to Memphis fresh from the New Hampshire primaries.

Hillary Clinton’s last stop in Memphis was a November 2015 appearance on the campus of LeMoyne-Owen College.

“I’m going to campaign in Tennessee to try to turn it blue in November of 2016,” Clinton declared a week before Thanksgiving.

“Why are Republicans standing in the way on health care and so much else? Why do they want to turn the clock back?” Clinton asked rhetorically. “They are paying attention to the powerful and special interests.”

Tennessee has gone “red” – been carried by the Republican nominee for president in every presidential general election since Al Gore lost his home state in the 2000 general election.

Corker doesn’t think that will change.

“I don’t have any thoughts about Tennessee not being a red state in 2016. I think that’s a given,” Corker said. “The question is what are people in Tennessee going to decide. … The debates have been sort of raucous. But who now do they believe is the best to bring out the best in our nation?”

Part of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 problem in Memphis was generational and some of it was caused by Bill Clinton’s attacks on Obama.

The former president campaigned for his wife at Whitehaven High School Feb. 11 to a capacity crowd of 700.

It was a return to Clinton’s form of the 1990s as he spoke for nearly an hour and worked the crowd after his speech for 25 minutes before sprinting to his waiting car.

Over the next few days, a closer analysis of the text of his 52-minute speech that covered a lot of ground turned up statements about the financial and economic system being “rigged.”

“There have always been those who were too greedy,” he said. “There have always been people who would take advantage. That’s what we are supposed to have government for … managing the risk and prosecuting the abuses.”

It was a hard sell that in a few places drew a distinction between a Hillary Clinton presidency and a Barack Obama presidency.

Six days later, Vice President Joe Biden showed a lighter and more subtle touch that national figures not running for political office can afford to use.

His remarks at the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Rossville gave an idea of what a Biden Democratic primary campaign could have looked like. And the glimpse revealed a much different appeal to crossover voters with no identification of “Democratic” and “Republican” values.

Biden repeatedly appealed to the blue-collar intermodal yard workers wearing hard hats and safety vests in the group of 250, aware that at least some were Republicans or independents.

Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz campaigned in Memphis in August drawing a large crowd at Agricenter International. Cruz was notable then for taking jabs at all of his Republican rivals except Donald Trump.

Biden talked about rebuilding the middle class through jobs like those at the yard, partially built with federal stimulus funding, and through manufacturing jobs.

What he defined was a middle class that candidates in both parties have talked about in more partisan terms.

“Being able to own your own home and not have to rent it. Being able to send your kid to a park and you know they are going to come home safe,” Biden said. “Being able to send your kid to a public high school and they do well and get to college and they can figure out how to get them to college and pay for it. And be able to take care of mom or dad when the other one dies in their geriatric years and hope your kids never have to take care of you. That’s becoming a vanishing idea.”

Not everyone who attended these local events supports a particular candidate.

That was the case in August among the crowd of 500 that came to see Cruz at Agricenter International.

Some disagree with Cruz on many issues, but admired his ability to raise $14.3 million in three months from 175,000 contributors who each gave an average of $68.

Politicos want to see not only what a candidate is saying but how they are saying it and what the campaign mechanics are saying to those at the rallies as they enter and leave.

What several noticed in August was that Cruz said nothing about Donald Trump. That was despite referring to “bipartisan corruption” and a “party of Washington” that includes Republicans and Democratic leaders in Congress.

“If you think things are going great in Washington, that we need to keep going in the same direction – just fiddle around the edges – then I ain’t your guy,” he said. “If you think Washington is fundamentally broken, that it is corrupt with a bipartisan corruption of career politicians in both parties … that’s what this campaign is all about.”

And Cruz saw the national path to the White House for Republicans as one that doesn’t involve crossover Democrats.

He complained of electing “Democrat-lite” to the White House.

Alexander has long been an advocate of the necessity of Republican crossover. And it has earned him the enmity of Tea Party Republicans.

But Alexander says the crossover is what it will take to win the White House in 2016.

“I think our candidates need to talk about what’s right about America. I want to see them reach out to independents and Democrats,” he said. “Shelby County Republicans have done better than any other part of our state in reaching out to independents and Democrats because they know they can’t win if they don’t know that. I think our presidential candidates could take a good lesson from Shelby County Republicans about how to win elections. A good conservative who loses cannot appoint Justice Scalia’s replacement.”

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