Sunday Column: Haslam’s Presidential Coyness, 4th District Fray

(Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
Some observations on the lay of Tennessee’s political landscape with the year 2011 winding down:
Gov. Bill Haslam remains officially neutral in the Republican presidential primary, but his sideline seat on the endorsement bench is widely seen as a matter of strategy rather than genuine indecisiveness.
Here’s a gubernatorial comment on the matter as uttered recently: “Given the timing of Tennessee’s primary, I don’t know that there’s any urgency to (making a presidential endorsement). I think there are some other things that can and will play out. At some point in time, I will endorse. I’m just not there yet.”
Suggested translation: He’s for Mitt Romney, just as he was in 2008 (except during Fred Thompson’s brief run for the nomination) and just as his father, brother, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty and several other political friends are today.
But there’s no point in announcing that fact at the moment. Better to wait until the dust has settled — or is further stirred — during the early primaries next year. Then, say two or three weeks before Tennessee’s March 6 presidential primary vote, make the big announcement when typical state GOP voters, not just a handful of political junkies, will actually notice.
Not that a horde of voters are eagerly awaiting Haslam’s nod to decide their own vote. But the gubernatorial endorsement will get some media attention and a positive spin from the Romney campaign.
Within the state, such a move would also distinguish Haslam from the more conservative wing of the Tennessee GOP, putting him at odds, for example, with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, an early backer of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
In Haslam’s own 2010 Republican primary win, his two more conservative opponents — Ramsey and then-Congressman Zach Wamp — collectively had more votes than Haslam. That was basically a repeat of the 2006 Republican U.S. Senate primary when the two more conservative candidates, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, collectively had more votes than the more moderate winner, Bob Corker.
If the Tennessee 2012 GOP presidential primary winds up as something more than a rubber-stamping of an already apparent winner, which is conceivable, Romney may be positioned to pull off a victory in the same fashion as Haslam and Corker.
And a pat on Romney’s back from the governor wouldn’t hurt that prospect.
n State Sen. Eric Stewart’s announcement that he will seek the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District may have set the stage for the state’s most competitive campaign for a U.S. House seat in the coming year. But then again, maybe not.
Much depends on how the 4th District, which now sprawls over 22 counties, is revised by Republican redistricting. Stewart lives in Franklin County, which adjoined Marion County, home of incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
Both Marion and Franklin counties have substantial populations of voters who have been traditionally oriented toward Democrats. So do other counties in Stewart’s Senate district. That means it will be difficult to draw the new lines to give the GOP the overwhelming edge that a freshman Republican would prefer — at least not without creating unease among other Republican congressional incumbents.
The likely upshot is that the revised 4th District will tilt slightly, but not drastically, toward the GOP. And there’s a chance of a spirited Republican challenge to DesJarlais, one prospect being state Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, who will have a hand in drawing the new districts.
DesJarlais has established himself as a staunch conservative since soundly defeating former Democratic Congressman Lincoln Davis in the 2010 statewide Republican romp. He had about $300,000 in his campaign account at last report, less than any other incumbent Tennessee congressman.
After Stewart’s announcement, the state GOP predictably issued a news release headlined, “President Obama has found his candidate.” Today’s Tennessee Republicans believe that they need merely to point out that a candidate is in the same party as the objectionable Obama to assure victory and nothing else much matters.
Expect Stewart to distance himself from Obama while attacking Washington generally and DesJarlais specifically.
He is, in short, a credible candidate, but still a long shot. That’s about the best Democrats can expect in these days.

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