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VOL. 133 | NO. 150 | Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Primaries For Governor Move to Contentious End

By Bill Dries

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Randy Boyd has heard the saying about a race for elected office being a marathon and not a sprint. And he agrees. The Republican contender for Tennessee governor is also a marathon runner who has run 36 of the races.

“And I always dreamed of being at mile 25 and feeling fresh, like it was day one,” Boyd said Saturday, July 28, near the closing of Shelby County’s early-voting period. “We feel something like that. I wouldn’t say perfectly fresh.”

The early-voting site at Second Baptist Church in East Memphis was the last of 38 locations Boyd visited across the state during the 14 days of balloting in advance of Election Day on Thursday.

Republican contender for governor Diane Black, center, talks with Memphis Gun Show manager Bill Abner after having her gun checked at the entrance to the event Sunday, July 29, at Agricenter. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The contentious statewide Republican primary among Boyd and the three other major candidates is taking some of the blame for the concern Republicans up and down the ballot have felt about Republican turnout as Democratic turnout increased from four years ago.

The attack ads from Boyd’s camp and that of U.S. Rep. Diane Black have made some local Republicans delay their decisions in the race that will be at the top of their ballots in the state and federal primary elections.

“The early voting hasn’t been as big a turnout as we anticipated, which tells me there are still people looking at the race, maybe undecided,” Black said Sunday at the Memphis Gun Show at Agricenter.

Rival Bill Lee, a Franklin businessman who chose a statewide campaign for governor as his first bid for elected office, told a group of 40 in Downtown Memphis last week that the attack ads aimed at him by Boyd and Black are an indication that he is running better than they expected.

“Those are everything that’s wrong with politics,” Lee said in the stump speech at the Kooky Canuck restaurant. “I’m a deeply conservative man.”

The attack ads among Black, Boyd and Lee question the conservative credentials of each other.

Eight years ago when Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey were battling for the Republican nomination, there were similar attacks. But when Haslam won the primary in 2010, there was little sustained damage or effect on the general election campaign that Haslam won over Democratic nominee Mike McWherter.

The Black and Boyd camps were sniping at each other from the outset of the current campaign about which candidate was closer in allegiance to President Donald Trump. But much of that was behind the scenes, including an argument at the 2018 local Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner where Boyd’s campaign complained that Black got speaking time on the program.

“I think in every campaign you are going to see some information out there that I call fake news. I’ve certainly been hit the most out of everybody but that shows that I’m ahead,” Black said of the attack ads that followed. “We know that that’s what campaigns are about. I’m battle tested. I’ve been through this. This is not anything new.”

Republican contender for governor Randy Boyd campaigns Saturday, July 28, at Second Baptist Church in East Memphis on the last day of the early voting period. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The attacks aren’t limited to only the Republican frontrunners for governor.

Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Germantown is facing a challenge from Memphis Republican George Flinn in the 8th Congressional District primary that includes attack ads similar to those Flinn has used in prior bids for office including county mayor and campaigns for Congress in the 8th and 9th districts.

The television and mail pieces have been in sufficient volume to prompt attack ads from Kustoff.

The county general election race for mayor goes into the gap between early voting and Thursday’s Election Day with Republican nominee David Lenoir fielding questions about a mailer showing Democratic rival Lee Harris juggling superimposed images of money with Harris’ skin tone visibly darkened.

Lenoir has denied any racial motivation. Harris at first joked that he doesn’t go around juggling money but also has said he thinks the darker skin tone crosses a line in what is acceptable political criticism.

Lenoir and Harris have been defining very different outlooks on the role of Shelby County government and the scope of change needed to confront problems of poverty and inequality. Both agree that those are problems the next mayor should deal with.

Democratic contender for governor Karl Dean has been debating primary rival Craig Fitzhugh in a primary that Dean, the former mayor of Nashville, is heavily favored to win over Fitzhugh, a veteran state representative from Ripley.

So far there haven’t been any attack ads, although Fitzhugh has been critical of Dean’s pledge to be “pragmatic” as governor and not define issues along a party divide. In Memphis, Fitzhugh has emphasized that he is the only major contender from West Tennessee in the race for governor – Democratic or Republican.

“It is a fact that the Legislature short-changes this city in many ways,” Fitzhugh told a crowd of 30 at a campaign forum Friday, July 27, at Fairley High School in Whitehaven. “It’s getting down to the wire now. I’m the only West Tennessean in the race.”

The forum didn’t allow the candidates to rebut an answer the other gave. “We are going to stay a family after this is over,” said moderator TaJuan Stout Mitchell.

Dean is among Democratic contenders who are using the term “crossover” to describe what they hope to do in the election results. Democrats once left the pitch for crossover votes to Republicans arguing that in Shelby County they have the majority and don’t need to seek Republican votes.

Meanwhile, Republican nominees for countywide office swept the 2010 county general election and all but one of the countywide offices on the 2014 general election ballot. That’s in a state with two Republican U.S. senators, nine Congressional seats held by seven Republicans and two Democrats and Republican super majorities in the state House and Senate.

“I think there definitely is potential for that,” Dean said when asked about Republican crossover votes for Democrats including himself.

“I think part of the thing the Republican Party is grappling with is they are starting to split,” he said before Friday’s forum with Fitzhugh. “There’s the party of Trump and there’s the party that existed before. And they still have a lot of tension there. I think there is an opportunity for people to look for a different message. And I think our message of pragmatism, getting things done, working together, focused on the future is a good one.”

Lee says there is an appeal to being a political outsider that only he, among the major candidates in the Republican primary, can claim.

“I do think the message has stayed the same,” Lee said of his own campaign. “I’ve learned a lot about politics. I’ve learned a lot about how it works. And I actually have come to believe even more and even stronger that coming from the outside brings a level of strength that is really important to Tennessee.”

At his series of 100 town hall meetings, Lee has told audiences that of $160,000 in campaign contributions he made in the 15 years before he decided to become a candidate, all but three contributions totaling $1,750 have gone to Republicans.

“That tells you ideologically where my focus is,” he told the Memphis group last week.

Lee’s television ads have responded generally to the attacks by Boyd and Black and not returned fire.

Boyd doesn’t view his ads as that.

“When you get attacked you may say it’s difficult not to at least to share facts back about the other side,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we had some contrast between us in making sure we are highlighting maybe some things that people need to know about the other side that might not appeal to them.”

He also concedes the ads have the effect of changing a carefully laid-out campaign strategy in a business where making the other contender change his or her plan is considered the opening of a path to winning.

“I think when the competition would be attacking you it definitely makes people bring up questions,” Boyd said. “You spend a lot of time having to answer them. And it’s always easier to attack and accuse than it is to defend and explain. We are spending a lot more time than we wish we were having to talk about why a particular attack is false as opposed to talking about some new policy or issue that we’re trying to address.”

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