VOL. 9 | NO. 28 | Saturday, July 9, 2016
Scramble in the 8th District
By Bill Dries
You might call it the calm before the storm. The Aug. 4 election, for which early voting starts July 15, is calmer than usual for the election cycle before a November presidential general election – the only election that more than half of Shelby County voters regularly show up for.
There are no statewide primaries for governor or U.S. Senate in August, an occurrence that only happens once every 12 years.
When this cycle last occurred in August 2004, only 12.2 percent of the voters in Shelby County showed up.
The August 2016 ballot is topped by a field of 13 in the Republican primary for the 8th Congressional District, seven of them from Shelby County.
It also includes the easiest primary re-election bid 9th District Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen has had since claiming that seat in 2006.
A sample ballot with all Aug. 4 races, including the crowded 8th District field, can be found online at memphisdailynews.com.
There are four interesting primaries in which incumbent state legislators from Shelby County – one Republican and three Democrats – face challenges from within their own parties for re-election.
The lone countywide general election on the August ballot is for General Sessions Court Clerk, one of only two countywide offices held by Democrats.
The election comes against a backdrop of continued turmoil within the local Democratic Party and the hiring of a new Shelby County Elections Administrator.
But it is the 8th District primary that is the main political attraction.
When incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher from Frog Jump in Crockett County announced in February that he would not seek re-election to the Congressional seat he’s held for six years, it was that rarest of political events – a real surprise.
The Republican primary field began forming hours after word from Fincher in Washington. By the filing deadline, it stood at 13 contenders.
The district covers 15 counties. The Shelby County portion of the district is East Memphis and Cordova, including the core of Republican activism that was essential in creating the modern Tennessee Republican Party of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Five of the Shelby County pack and Jackson, Tenn. contender Brad Greer are the best financed and most active candidates.
The primary’s winner meets the winner of the Democratic primary between Rickey Hobson and Gregory Alan Frye on the November ballot.
The contenders appear to agree on a lot. All say they back presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Some say they back his representation of the electorate’s frustration more than they support his specific views. The most visible differences are how they define their individual conservatism relative to the other contenders.
The best example of the differences is between Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and state Sen. Brian Kelsey.
Kelsey was among the most vocal opponents of Insure Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion compromise that was crushed in the Tennessee Legislature without a floor vote – House or Senate – in 2015.
Luttrell urged the Legislature to approve Insure Tennessee and remains a supporter of the plan.
Kelsey is the only Republican legislator in the primary field and he touts the record and reputation of the Republican super majorities in Nashville as well as his own.
“As great as things are going in Nashville, they are going much worse in Washington,” he told supporters at the June opening on his campaign headquarters on the Collierville town square. “This race is about sending the right conservative to Washington.”
Kelsey is repeatedly warning voters against conservative candidates who moderate once they are elected.
Luttrell, at an earlier forum, sounded themes he’s sounded in his two successful campaigns for county mayor – that citizens are turning away from the political process and have to be “energized” to “restore faith in government.”
“I think it’s time we have a legislator who has administrative experience,” he said at a June mortgage bankers forum at Agricenter International. “I’ve seen overregulation. I’ve seen the lack of oversight. I’ve seen unfunded mandates. I’ve seen tax dollars go to Washington but not come back to Shelby County.”
Kelsey is touting his sponsorship of the 2014 referendum that amended the Tennessee Constitution, permanently banning a state income tax.
Independent auditors review ballots on voting machines at the Shelby County Election Commission's warehouse in Memphis.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
And rival Republican contender Tom Leatherwood, the Shelby County Register of Deeds who was a state Senator before winning the register’s office, is also focusing on his own anti-tax record.
Leatherwood challenged and defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. Leonard Dunavant of Millington in the 1990s based on Dunavant’s support of an income tax. Republican Gov. Don Sundquist also pushed for a state income tax during his second term as governor.
“I’ve been tested and I’ve had the experience,” Leatherwood has said on the campaign trail. “You know I am willing to stand up for the principles that I espouse.”
Radiologist and radio station owner George Flinn is among the major contenders who are making a distinction between those in the race who hold elected office and those who don’t.
Flinn doesn’t hold elected office. But it’s not for lack of trying. Flinn is a former Shelby County commissioner and he was the Republican nominee for Shelby County mayor in 2002, losing to Democrat A C Wharton in the general election after upsetting Larry Scroggs, the local GOP establishment’s candidate in the primary.
Flinn ran in the 2010 Republican primary for the 8th Congressional District and two years later in the GOP primary for the 9th District. He ran in the 2014 Republican U.S. Senate primary challenging incumbent Lamar Alexander.
“Politics is broken,” Flinn says close to the top of his speeches, echoing a line from his television ads that began airing early in the race. “They wait. I’m tired of waiting.”
Attorney David Kustoff has also never held elected office. But the former local Republican Party chairman knows politics.
Kustoff and Leatherwood were part of the Shelby County block of candidates who ran in the Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in 2002 when the 7th took in parts of Shelby County that are now in the 8th District.
Kustoff was state campaign manager for the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush, a role that put him at the front of the successful effort by Bush to take, instead of cede, the home state of Democratic nominee and former Vice President Al Gore.
Kustoff is emphasizing his tenure as U.S. Attorney for West Tennessee. New television ads for Kustoff that debuted before the Fourth of July holiday promise that Kustoff will dismantle Obamacare and defeat ISIS terrorism.
“When I’m elected to Congress, I’m going to be the person with experience,” Kustoff said at a June campaign event, referring to his experience as the chief federal prosecutor in West Tennessee after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“It goes back to the president,” Kustoff added as he talked about more recent terrorist attacks. “President Obama doesn’t get it. He missed it.”
Brad Greer, one of four primary contenders from Jackson, Tenn., is also denying status as a politician.
“I’m not a politician,” he said at a candidate forum in East Memphis. “I’ve never been in elected office and people want something different.”
But Greer, founder of Premier Productions advertising agency, has worked on a lot of political campaigns in the Jackson area.
He’s the best financed of the Jackson contenders, has the best political connections and is the only one with a presence in the Memphis area.
Greer is attempting to emphasize the needs of rural areas that make up the bulk of the district, but not alienate more densely populated urban areas like Memphis and Shelby County, while acknowledging the difference between the two.
“You need a congressman who will look for addressing the needs of both,” he said.
The June political gathering at the Regions Bank headquarters on Poplar Avenue wasn’t a forum because of the size of the field. Instead, each candidate set up tables in a circle around a buffet and campaigned hand to hand with members of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Most NFIB members are small business owners who agree that Washington is going in the wrong direction, said Tennessee NFIB director Jim Brown, but not necessarily for partisan reasons.
“We are hearing complaint after complaint about the regulatory environment,” he said. “They’re generally happy with what’s happening at the state level. We’ve got challenges there, of course. But Washington is getting in the way of the small business engine.”
Brown said his members, many of whom survived the recession, aren’t looking for a candidate who matches their views on every issue in every nuance.
“I think the nation is just craving leadership, less division and more focus on the issues that we know are elephants in the room – entitlements, debt,” Brown said.
NFIB members want more focus on a process, “not 2,000-page omnibus bills,” he said.
The August primary promises to have ripples beyond the vote, based on the large fields in past congressional races.
In the 2006 Democratic primary for the 9th Congressional District seat, the contenders included future Memphis City Council member and state Sen. Lee Harris and future U.S. attorney and federal court judge appointee Ed Stanton.
Cohen won the 2006 primary, in a field of 15, with 31 percent of the vote.
The 1994 Republican primary for U.S. Senate won by Bill Frist included future U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who would claim the Senate seat 12 years later after serving as mayor of Chattanooga and as state finance commissioner.
There is another possible ripple beyond the race with Luttrell’s candidacy.
If Luttrell wins the primary and the general election, he would go to Washington with a year and eight months left on his term of office as county mayor. The chairman of the county commission, who will be chosen by the commission in July, would become interim mayor for up to 45 days, during which time the commission would appoint someone to fill the rest of Luttrell’s term through the August 2018 county elections.
Because there is always the next election.