Running for governor against a man with nearly unlimited wealth is never an ideal situation. Remove that glaring exception from the equation, however, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has to be feeling good about his campaign.
Two weeks ago, at the Tennessee Press Association’s winter meeting, Ramsey sat on stage with his major rivals for the Republican nomination and watched as two of his opponents tag-teamed a third with an endless barrage of attacks on his wealth and insinuations about his integrity. The frontrunner and target, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, was clearly wounded and seemed surprised by the two-barreled assault by U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons.
“On Wall Street they say too big to fail,” said Wamp as he angled for an attack. “I wonder here if one family or one corporation is too big to be held accountable like everyone else. … Who are you in partnership with? Who might stand to make money from you being governor?”
Haslam, of course, was always going to be vulnerable on the wealth issue. Haslam’s money is not self-made. And retail gas lends itself easily to accusations of price gouging — an affront to the “common man.”
It was the most pointed public display of schoolyard politics in this campaign thus far, just a taste of what’s to come. And Ramsey couldn’t have been more detached from it if he were in Switzerland.
Ramsey may not have the wealth of Haslam or the charisma of Wamp, but what he lacks in money and presentation he makes up for with power.
On Aug. 5, win or lose, he’ll still be Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
Any barbs leveled at Ramsey in this campaign will be muted. The next governor, whomever he or she may be, will need to get an agenda through the legislature. Ramsey is in the position to make that process easier — or more difficult — pretty much at will.
In many ways, Ramsey’s best strategy in this race is to do very little. Of course, he should be on the trail making connections with voters and future donors, but his public actions should be focused on one thing: his job as lieutenant governor. Nothing else.
Ramsey has little to fear from any of the candidates other than Haslam. Gibbons, a regional candidate, takes Shelby County, where a sizable chunk of the primary electorate resides, out of play. Clearly Gibbons can’t win with just Shelby, but his presence in the race muddies the water enough so that Haslam can’t swoop in and buy it.
And while one might think it would benefit Ramsey to have Wamp out of the race, there is a flipside: Wamp does the dirty work, going negative on Haslam. Wamp is actually providing an essential service for Ramsey as a de facto running mate, an attack dog for the “pure” Ramsey.
On the trail, Wamp claims the support of the grassroots, but he has been in Congress a fairly long time. While Republicans all over the country are running against Washington, Wamp is forced to run from there. The grassroots of the GOP is now the “tea party,” and while the movement means different things to different people, the issue that gave rise to the movement is undisputed: the government bailout of the financial system. Wamp voted for that bailout. Yes, he cast a symbolic 'no' vote on the original bill but he is still on record voting the wrong way on the issue that gave rise to the most powerful faction in the GOP primary.
In fact, if there is a tea party candidate in the race, it is Ramsey. Certainly he, too, has a legislative record that can be manipulated and exploited. But his is a far easier sell. The other candidates have obvious weaknesses — Haslam and Gibbons on guns and Wamp on the bailouts. By default, if for no other reason, Ramsey is the candidate of the frustrated ones.
In all likelihood, the next governor of this state will be a Republican, probably Haslam. That’s still the case. But the lay of the land doesn’t look too bad for Ramsey, either. And he doesn’t have to do much to keep it that way.
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