There aren’t many Mike McWherter for Governor signs along the 35-mile stretch of Sparta Pike between Lebanon and Smithville. To be fair, there aren’t many Bill Haslam for Governor signs either. But the Haslam signs outnumber McWherter’s 2-to-1.
Does this mean anything? Not sure. Normal people probably don’t care to think much about it. And normal people, in this scenario, are people who do not bury their noses in political campaigns, people whose regular, workaday lives require the majority of their concentration and energy. They are the people whom candidates for high political office, often of a tax bracket unfamiliar to normal people, seem to want to emulate while they’re campaigning, whether it’s through TV ads conveying a deep affection for simple things like chocolate pie, or a series of events where the candidate dons workingman duds and hangs out at a factory for a couple hours.
Other people, who do spend their time analyzing political campaigns, might say Yes, this is the kind of thing that matters. It says something about the candidate’s reach, or his ability to touch the brains of normal people in a positive way. Perhaps it’s a measure of a candidate’s war chest; maybe Haslam, a much better funded candidate, has purchased and placed (via his campaign) more signs than McWherter. Because money matters.
At the very least, people who spend their time analyzing campaigns would probably assign some meaning to the fact that, on a random piece of Tennessee highway far enough removed from Nashville to see stars at night and where the array of signage for local and state races is a reminder of that cliché about all politics being local, McWherter is getting his ass kicked.
In a year when two-term Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen will exit with widespread approval, it has become conventional to say that McWherter is an underdog. The man who inherited the dynamic political legacy of his father, former Gov. Ned McWherter, lags in all major indicators: polling, fundraising, endorsements, even basic messaging.
By the beginning of October, two weeks before early voting and a full month in front of Election Day, McWherter still seemed invisible, despite four television ads and one radio spot since mid-summer. Promises of a forthcoming blitz of television ads notwithstanding, the Democratic candidate was running a school board-style campaign for the state’s highest office — with a month on the clock. McWherter told The City Paper his campaign’s internal motto is “run silent, run deep” — like a submarine.
The problem is, with early voting imminent and Election Day just around the corner, silence is about as virtuous as a sex scandal.
Nice guys finish …
To this point, save one ill-fated connect-the-dots routine implying that Haslam has ties to Iran’s nuclear program, McWherter has been the Nice Guy to his opponent’s Nice Guy shtick. When you talk to him, and when he talks to voters, there is not an ounce of vitriol or viciousness in his voice. His countenance is pleasant and forward.
“I think you’re trying to find any gaps in the Haslam positive story,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “That’s one way you’re going at it.”
Perhaps that’s coming. The surprise attack — the “silent” portion of the submarine metaphor — is headed for Haslam, McWherter explained. The campaign launched a statewide television ad on Thursday that touts his personal story and a plan to provide tax incentives to small businesses. They planned to add another, criticizing Haslam, on Monday.
As for the deep part, the campaign’s calculus is this: Rather than spend money (which has been comparatively scarce, from his uncontested primary until now) on advertising, McWherter has hustled through the rural parts of the state, knocking on doors, appearing at myriad events and generally shaking every extended hand.
McWherter is a natural in this territory, like a campaign-’99-era George W. Bush, the kind of dude you may want to have a beer with. He seems like a fun guy — maybe you’d even hijack a beer truck. The problem with this, as more than enough writers and thinkers and political tinkerers have pointed out during the last decade, is that you don’t necessarily want your bar buddy balancing the state budget.
Near the end of September, I spent a day on the road with the McWherter campaign. Everything about it was typical: meeting people, shaking hands, passing out cards and asking for votes.
There are very few physical boundaries for the candidate. When McWherter drops in on a local eatery, like he did at the Sundance Restaurant in downtown Smithville, he always walks into the kitchen, and he doesn’t really ask whether that’s OK before he does it. He wound his way through the DeKalb County Courthouse, behind any desk or counter, shaking hands and introducing himself with a broad smile to people’s mostly vague flashes of recognition. He is jovial. He can cover about one-third of the state in a day in his navy blue GMC Yukon. He is pretty good at his stump speech, although he still appeared to use notes while delivering it at the Rotary Club on Sept. 27, almost a week after I was with him.
It’s simple, really: As all this business of criticism and prediction swirls around his orb, McWherter appears unfazed. He is all smiles, unserious and jokey in the lighter moments, generally calmer than the members of his staff. He gives the genuine impression that he is having fun. He rarely flashes any sign of ego.
Perhaps ego is what has troubled McWherter up to this point. Ask a man why he wants to hold high office and — if he is a winner — he will tell you something about his distinctive ability to solve the bigger problems. He will give you every indication that he is the only person suited for such a job.
“When I started looking at this race, and seeing who was offering themselves for office, to the highest elective office in the state, I became very discouraged with what the prospects were,” McWherter said of his reasons for entering the race. “I decided that if I was ever going to run, that this was the time I would get in this race and try to make a difference for the future of Tennessee.”
A man without a roaring ego probably cannot, in this age of our politics, win a race for governor. That’s not to say he couldn’t be a good tenant of the office.
Who doesn’t want jobs?
There are important things that everyone should know but might not about Mike McWherter.
Collection of facts No. 1: McWherter was born in rural West Tennessee. He was 12 years old when his father was first elected to the state legislature, and he was a tagalong. He attended Vanderbilt University’s law school, practiced law for four years in Nashville, then moved to Jackson and launched a beer distributorship, Central Distributors, that grossed him more than $1 million last year, according to his tax returns.
Collection of facts No. 2: McWherter is a self-described conservative Democrat, and Haslam is a self-described moderate Republican, and the two agree on major issues often. It is more instructive to discuss the ways they differ: McWherter favors an expansion of the state’s pre-kindergarten program, and Haslam has been noncommittal on that front. McWherter has proposed a tax cut for small businesses that hire new employees; Haslam has not. Perhaps most prominently, McWherter has disclosed his financial information in full, allowing us a look at potential conflicts of interest, while Haslam has so far refused.
Collection of facts No. 3: McWherter has a very serious idea for bringing small businesses to the state that, encapsulated, is something like this: Jobs ‡ Consumers ‡ Revenue.
In June, the state of Illinois enacted a law making available a $2,500 tax credit to small (50 or fewer employees) businesses that add employees. McWherter has proposed a similar program for Tennessee businesses as large as 100 employees. In campaign appearances, McWherter explains his theory that encouraging small businesses to add jobs moves more money into the general economic pool, creating a slow but steady increase in consumer activity, which brings the state more tax revenue.
In recent weeks, he has unveiled a tandem idea: In the wake of Bredesen’s successes in landing big-name companies such as Volkswagen, Nissan and Wacker Chemie AG, the next governor ought to focus on roping in smaller, ancillary industries that complement the heftier corporations — i.e. small businesses.
“If you’re paying taxes in this state, you’ve got a stake in those industries,” McWherter told a group of workers at the Jeld-Wen factory in Sparta, explaining his program during a “Mike Works” event — in which the candidate experiences firsthand a few hours in the day of a working Tennessean — near the end of September.
All of this betrays the broader vapidity of this campaign so far. In all its glorious boredom, and in its absence of any rhetorical firepower whatsoever, the slog has left reporters so starved for substance that they’re pinning the candidates — particularly Haslam — against the wall for something more. Last week, a frustrated Haslam even suggested this campaign should be about the candidates’ records, not about their ideas for the future of Tennessee.
Collection of facts No. 4: Campaigns — and campaign analyses — are fundraising games. Haslam has outspent and outraised McWherter in a significant way, leading some to privately question whether the Democrat is an adept fundraiser. McWherter has already sunk $1 million of his own money into the campaign; he was noncommittal when asked whether he would spend more.
Collection of facts No. 5: McWherter and Haslam differ substantially on the state of next year’s budget. Dovetailing on Bredesen’s work, McWherter insists that money from the federal stimulus program was spent, by and large, on one-time projects and will not leave a gaping hole in the next budget. Haslam counts the absent stimulus money when he warns of a hole of more than $1 billion; McWherter’s figure tops out at $45 million.
“I can manage our way through that,” McWherter said. “I think [Haslam] is trying to terrify voters into voting for him.”
A local race
We drive slowly over Hurricane Bridge, three cars in a caravan headed north from Smithville to the Lakeside Resort at Center Hill Lake for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, where McWherter will provide an abbreviated version of his stump speech and promise a roomful of DAs that as governor, he’ll work to improve pay grades for their assistant attorneys.
Police cars mark both ends of Hurricane Bridge. The officers inside them make sure that a tractor-trailer is not on the bridge at the same time as other vehicles. The bridge is in danger of falling down, and a dithering state legislature has thus far failed to provide funding for repairs. Such is the case also, but to a less dramatic degree, with Sligo Bridge, another crucial point of access to DeKalb County about 14 road miles to the southeast. If both were to fall or close or otherwise be impassable, the county would in effect be closed off to the north and east.
There has been an ongoing argument about these bridges for years now. Meeting with McWherter before his tour of the courthouse, DeKalb County Mayor Mike Foster wanted to be told that yes, the theoretical Gov. McWherter would finally sort this out, so the theoretical governor told him what he wanted to hear.
One speaking engagement, a few hours and about 30 miles later, we arrive at the brand-new headquarters of the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency in Sparta. As employees unpack boxes and arrange wall hangings, Executive Director Phyllis R. Bennett shepherds McWherter and his two traveling staff members through the hallways, all of which look the same to the unfamiliar eye.
“If he could meet everybody, he’d have their vote,” Bennett tells me as McWherter shakes hands with her employees, of which there are 550.
The agency is in charge of 69 different programs throughout Tennessee, and about 20 percent of its budget comes from state funding. Bennett said Haslam, who was invited to do the same walking tour but who sent his wife instead (he was called to unexpected mayoral business), has not committed to her agency’s funding. In a continuation of Bredesen’s administration, McWherter has.
“We want some more of that Phil Bredesen era,” she said, smiling. Bredesen provided funding for the human resource agency in every one of his budgets. “It was just extremely important that we get those dollars,” Bennett said.
By and large, McWherter has been doing this since the spring: listening to local people discuss their own, hyper-local issues; catering to those issues with rhetorical flashes that sound quite nice but offer little that is concrete. In other words, he’s been keeping an eye on the normal people.
McWherter ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, and he remained out of public view for much of the summer — mostly because the media was consumed with an antics-ridden Republican primary. McWherter joined briefly in the chorus of criticism from Haslam’s primary opponents over the Tennessee attorney general’s lawsuit against Pilot Corp. — owned in part by the Haslam family — for price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008. He aired one 15-second commercial referencing the scandal.
His first television ad, which launched in late July, was a standard biographical piece that focused on McWherter’s devotion to his rural Tennessee upbringing, his family, his business and his mission to bring more jobs to the state. The candidate’s closer: “Tennessee first, Tennessee jobs. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Since then, McWherter has done little to better his image in Tennessee’s major cities.
“The big problem is that he’s effectively been almost invisible, or the campaign has been almost invisible in the media the past few weeks,” said Oppenheimer, of Vanderbilt. “I don’t think if you’re a candidate who’s trailing you can afford to do that.”
If you trust the polls, Haslam is, at the moment, delivering a beating unto McWherter. According to a WSMV-Channel 4 poll, the Republican is up more than 2-to-1. That’s consistent with earlier polling done during the primary, which suggests McWherter has failed to catch up with a buoyed, post-primary Haslam. (Both the McWherter campaign and state party chair Chip Forrester suggested the silver lining in that poll was the number of undecided voters still out there; however, taken with McWherter’s avowed support and the margin of error, he still falls short of Haslam.)
“This is an era of permanent campaigns, and you can’t allow a campaign for statewide office to disappear from the public for three weeks, four weeks,” Oppenheimer said.
During that time, of course, Haslam delivered another blow to McWherter, unveiling a list of 105 Democrats and Independents who’ve decided to endorse the middle-of-the-road Republican. McWherter’s rather conventional list features most of the party members in the state legislature, his father and Bredesen, and five unions, including the AFL-CIO.
Still, the party seems to be happy with the McWherter effort thus far.
“Mike has run a very aggressive grassroots campaign, particularly before the primary,” Forrester said. “He was keeping his financial powder dry but really traveling the state very aggressively.”
Other than that, it’s difficult to get outside observers to go on the record about McWherter’s campaign. Bredesen said in a recent interview with The City Paper that “it’s a tough campaign” for McWherter, and a difficult time for Democrats in general.
“He’s very down to earth, he’s a businessman but a small businessman, so he really understands how to make payroll,” Bredesen said in praise. “I’ve found his values are good.”
The candidate himself is aware of the hardships, even if he doesn’t acknowledge them outright.
“My opponent has a gazillion dollars, and he’ll obviously use it,” McWherter said. “I have to win this using some elbow grease.”