While Republican Bob Corker remains virtually assured of re-election to the U.S. Senate, an unprecedented race for runner-up status has developed with ramifications on Tennessee political contests in 2014, and perhaps later.
And it could lead to headaches in this November’s vote-counting as well.
For the first time in many decades, there will be four candidates for the U.S. Senate on the state’s November ballot who are identified by party affiliation. A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision this week means that the Green Party nominee Martin Pleasant of Knoxville and Constitution Party nominee Kermit Steck of Kingsport will join Republican Corker.
Mark Clayton, a flooring installer living in the Nashville area, will apparently be the Democratic nominee — though state Democratic officials are still in something a dither about that since disavowing Clayton’s candidacy for what party Chairman Chip Forrester calls “extremist, tea party right-wing positions.”
Still hanging is a complaint from Larry Crim, fourth-place finisher in the Democratic Senate primary, asking the party to throw out Clayton’s nomination.
As things stand now, the party is merely disavowing Clayton as a candidate and urging voters instead to write in “a candidate of your choice” for the U.S. Senate in November. In theory at least, the party could take up Crim’s challenge, declare Clayton unqualified and designate a new nominee.
Forrester acknowledged that as a possibility in an interview Friday, but declined to discuss any specific plans. A party lawyer has told Crim that any action will be postponed until after results of the Aug. 2 primary are officially certified.
“We are in an unprecedented situation,” said Forrester. “I’m a little hesitant to speculate on what we are going to do. … It’s important that we navigate this carefully while our legal team looks at all the options.”
The party is “not closing the door” on officially endorsing someone as a write-in candidate, party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said. There has otherwise been a flurry of interest in write-in campaigns from various individuals, some calling the Democratic Party and others emailing media.
Under state law, a person must file appropriate paperwork with the state as a write-in candidate at least 50 days before the Nov. 6 general election, or Sept. 17. Otherwise, the write-ins will not be counted, said state Election Coordinator Mark Goins.
In November, a substantial number of write-in ballots could slow ballot counting. If a voter misspells a name, for example, the ballot must be checked to determine if the intent was to vote for a registered write-in candidate.
“They (write-ins) are welcome,” Goins said. “But it’s not an ideal situation for us if there are a lot of them.”
While an unprecedented morass may have been created for Democrats, those in the Green and Constitution parties see an unprecedented opportunity.
The court ruling, recent changes in the law on third parties by the Legislature, official disavowal of the Democratic nominee and perceived conservative dissatisfaction with Corker have combined to create a potential “perfect storm” in third-party politics.
A goal for Pleasant, an engineer with the Knox County Public Works Department, and Streck, an Army veteran from Kingsport, is to get at least enough votes in November to assure their parties will be on the 2014 ballot again with a party label.
And that could change the dynamics of the future races. By most conventional political wisdom, the Green Party is viewed as somewhat to the left of mainstream Democrats on most issues; the Constitution Party somewhat to the right of the Republican Party.
Under the new law, a party can earn party identity on future state election ballots by getting 5 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. That translates into roughly 80,000 votes for a U.S. Senate nominee on Nov. 6.
We’re not there now, but we’re going to be working feverishly to get there between now and November,” said Joe Coffey of Gray, chairman of the Constitution Party of Tennessee.
Pleasant said the “turmoil in the Democratic Party” should benefit his candidacy.
“The Democratic nominee (Clayton) is in some ways running to the right of Corker,” he said. “Corker is beholden to the corporate special interests.”
Pleasant calls for expansion of the AmeriCorps program of providing public service jobs and restoring provisions of the federal Glass-Steagle Act that impose restrictions on banking practices.
Coffey said Republicans talk about favoring constitutional, limited government but Corker and others do not follow through with their actions. He said the senator has “voted for hundreds of unconstitutional bills.”
Pleasant said some Green Party members had raised the possibility of discussions with Democratic Party officials about the possibility of supporting Pleasant’s candidacy since Clayton’s nomination is disavowed. Forrester said that will not happen since the party is based on support for its own.
Adam Nickas, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, declined to answer questions about the impact of Green and Constitution party candidates on the GOP Friday. He did say that “we are proud of Sen. Corker’s conservative record.”
Corker’s campaign, which has already spent more than $6 million and has more than that left in cash on hand, declined via email to comment on activities of his opponents.