Post Politics: Leaving a movement hanging

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 11:44pm
Ben Cunningham

Now that Rep. Bart Gordon has decided against seeking a 14th term in Congress, virtually every Democrat or Republican of consequence with a connection to the district has either had their name floated or been confirmed as a potential successor.

Everyone, that is, but Ben Cunningham.

The reason one of Sumner County’s newest residents hasn’t been mentioned is simple: He doesn’t want to be. The notorious taxpayer advocate and government watchdog isn’t — and doesn’t want to be — a candidate. In fact, when contacted for this column, he made it clear there were no political plans to discuss and that he would have no comment, on or off the record.

And that helps to illustrate why he would be the perfect candidate.

After the Gordon retirement news broke last Monday, everyone who is anyone in the district was angling to be mentioned as a possible replacement. But not “Gentle” Ben Cunningham. Friends and acquaintances tried to draft him long before the incumbent’s unexpected announcement, but he snuffed out the efforts immediately. He wants no part of any campaign, draft or otherwise.

Cunningham, like radio talkers Steve Gill and Phil Valentine, served as a field general in the state income tax battles of the last decade and has since become Middle Tennessee’s Center-Right conscience. He hasn’t been a flash-in-the-pan, bomb-throwing activist perpetually pining for his picture in the paper. He hasn’t tried to parlay his “fame” to line his pockets or get a job.

While a new breed of Johnny-come-lately tea party activists have been embarrassing themselves, exploiting the movement for power and money — and becoming walking, talking caricatures of anti-government activism in the process — Cunningham, by contrast, has been measured and thoughtful.

“Nobody can hold a candle to what Ben has accomplished as a champion for limited government and personal freedom in Tennessee,” said Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

“Without Ben, Tennessee would probably have a state income tax. Without Ben, Davidson County would certainly have higher property taxes. Without Ben, dozens of counties across this state would have higher wheel taxes.”

Who better to lead the vulnerable, politically naive, tea party movement into the mainstream than someone who has actually influenced government policy?

But protest candidates are a dime a dozen. The real question is whether Cunningham could win.

One Republican operative said Cunningham would need to be on television to compete with any electeds in the primary and that he would need to raise “$500,000 at a minimum.” Unless he’s willing to self-fund, the source said, it would be daunting.

Another GOP influential said because Cunningham’s relationships and activist experience run deep, he “would have most of the grassroots from the word go” and could run “an entirely nontraditional campaign” that could skip television altogether.

Even Democrats see a Cunningham candidacy as a potential force to be reckoned with.

“[Cunningham] has some name recognition and is a known brand,” said an unnamed Democratic consultant, “The issue menu in that district right now is tailor-made for him. I would not discount him.”

So why has Cunningham forsworn elected politics?

The speculation varies, but whether it’s capitulation to his “better half,” a distaste for retail politics or a belief that more power resides outside the system than within, what’s almost certain is that this chance won’t come again.

Open congressional seats are the Holy Grail in politics, and if a Republican wins this one, it will be drawn favorably in 2012 for the incumbent to hold for a good long while.

A GOP-led recalibration of Tennessee politics has been a long time coming. All that’s to be determined is what kind of revolution it will be. One led by career politicians and also-ran operatives skilled in the gamesmanship of the old politics? Or could this uprising, unlike 1994’s, actually yield something authentically populist?

Cunningham has all the tools to lead the movement out of the wilderness. He’s seen the levers of power and knows how they work. He knows the mainstream media and possesses the skills to manipulate the new media.

This isn’t an endorsement of a candidacy, just the recognition of a crucial moment for a movement. If the tea party is going to grow out of infancy, become a true force and avoid co-option, it will need leaders. The question in Tennessee is whether the movement can get its Winston Churchill out from under the bed.

Kleinheider is's political blogger. Visit him at

9 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 12/21/09 at 5:51

The simple reason is he most likely doesn't want to for whatever reason and that should be respected.

I am suspect when a Lefty trys to pick a canidate for the oposition thinking they would be the easiest to beat.

While I respect Mr Cunningham Dianne Black has a record (of not being a RINO) and most likely an advantage over the others.

I think we are entering the age of the woman with Palin, Bachman and Blackburn. Lord knows they cannot be any worse then what the republican party has become. (A bunch of wimps that want to be dem lites and don't stand for anything with conviction and will compromise on/for a dime)

By: vechester on 12/21/09 at 8:52

Dittos on the above comment. We have learned the hard way that the media hacks should not be the ones to sElect our candidates. And NO the protesters have not been embarrassing themseleves any more than the colonists did in the American Revolution. The real embarrassment are the media lapdog hacks for BHO. It is obvious and disgusting.

We have a government now that is passing or attempting to pass legislation that the majority does not want, and that they cannot pass beyond the end of this year. We have the Senate dems breaking their own rules (stopping Saturday's reading of the health scare amendment when it should have been completed) and we conservatives have had it.

No we did not embarrass ourselves, we stood for something and we became a force to be reckoned with. This movement will restore the Republican party to its conservative roots in 2010. Stay tuned...

By: jwk6179 on 12/21/09 at 9:06

I keep hearing all these Conservative Pundits (Phil Valentine, Steve Gill, Ralph Bristol, et al) spouting off that the REASON Bart Gordon decided not run for Re-Election to the Sixth District was because he was AFRAID to run against a LEGIT Republican canidate. Yet other than Lou Ann Zelenick (who I would not label a serious threat to Bart Gordon), ALL of the other Republican canidates (Jim Tracy, Diane Black, possibly Bill Ketron) waited until Bart Gordon ANNOUNCED that he was NOT RUNNING for RE-ELECTION to announce their own canadancy ofr that office. If they AREN'T AFRAID of RUNNING AGAINST BART GORDON, WHY DID THEY WAIT FOR GORDON TO ANNOUNCE HE WAS NOT RUNNING BEFORE THEY ANNOUNCED THEY OWN CANIDANCY FOR HIS SEAT????

By: idgaf on 12/21/09 at 10:27

vechester a suggestion that you stop refering to barry as BHO, BO is more reflective of what he is doing to us and who he is.

By: pswindle on 12/22/09 at 10:30

TN has become an embarrassment. The take-over of the GOP will lead us back to the dark ages. I hope the people of TN wake up before it is too late. Rep. Gordon worked for all of the people of TN, and not just the democratic party.

By: idgaf on 12/23/09 at 8:28

Gordon and Cooper voted for everything Nancy told them to vote for and it adds up to Trillions.

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