Tenn. Senate: Corker's Cash Advantage
The interview came just two days after a poll was released showing Corker in third place (19 percent) in the three-way primary race, trailing former Reps. Van Hilleary (34 percent) and Ed Bryant (23 percent).
Despite lagging behind his two opponents, Corker said he was "ecstatic" about the poll's results, since the numbers came just two weeks into his television campaign, which he expects to continue non-stop until the Aug. 8 primary. "We had hoped to be at that point by the end of May," Corker said about his standing in the polls.
At the moment, any survey is largely testing the three candidates' name identification among voters, since the contest has not truly engaged. It makes sense then that Hilleary -- the party's nominee for governor in 2002 -- was the best known of the three, while Bryant, a candidate for Senate in 2002, placed a strong second.
Corker, who has not run statewide since 1994 (when he lost the Senate primary to Frist), may be the least-known candidate, but he is, by far, the best financed -- the key ingredient to winning the primary, he said.
At the end of March, Corker had raised an impressive $5.5 million and had $4.2 million in the bank. Contrast that with the $1.8 million that Hilleary and Bryant have each raised for the race and the $1.2 million and $1.1 million the two men have on hand, respectively. While Corker has mined the unusually active political donor class of Tennessee, he has also had help from Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who hosted a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Corker last night. Coleman, a fellow former mayor, also hosted a meet and greet on March 10 for Corker at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.
Corker is using that financial advantage to introduce himself to Republican voters in the state with two biographical ads that focus on his business background and ability to create jobs. Expect Corker to draw a strong contrast between his business background and the fact that both Bryant and Hilleary are former House members and lawyers. The ads are produced by Paul Curcio -- the campaign's media consultant. Glen Bolger, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, is the campaign's pollster.
Bryant and Hilleary are not expected to begin their own television campaigns in the immediate future, but neither candidate can wait too long as early voting runs from July 14 to 29. In 2004, roughly half of the vote was cast either early or absentee; in the 2002 primary between Bryant and Sen. Lamar Alexander, 35 percent of the vote came from either early or absentee ballots.
While Corker is supremely confident about his chances of winning, there are several pending issues that Bryant and Hilleary will use to cast the former mayor as a liberal -- not the best moniker when trying to win a Republican primary.
Corker has acknowledged that he voted in two Democratic primary elections in 1998 and also makes no secret that he raised taxes during his tenure from 2001 to 2005 as Chattanooga mayor. On the former issue, Corker says he was living in Davidson County (Nashville) at the time and the only way to have an influence on his elected officials was to vote on the Democratic side of the ledger. On the question of raising taxes, Corker said his predecessor left him with little choice. "Houdini would have had to raise taxes," Corker said, adding that by the end of his term Chattanooga had its lowest property taxes in more than five decades.
Nonetheless, these two issues fit nicely into 30-second attack ads. Corker will certainly have the resources to respond, but it remains unclear whether either or both issue will be disqualifying for him in the primary.
The prospect of an all-out brawl on the Republican side has Democrats overjoyed as Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is running unopposed for his party's nomination. To date, Ford has run an extremely strong campaign and shown a willingness to take risks -- most notably running early television advertising on issues of the day, like port security and -- more recently -- gas prices.
Republicans are watching Ford closely. The National Republican Senatorial Committee noted today that Ford leases a sport utility vehicle through his congressional office and charged more than $2,500 worth of gas to his congressional office in 2005.
Committee aides also provided an excerpt from Ford's appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball" last night. When asked whether people should be allowed to drive SUVs, Ford responded: "People have a right to drive what they want to drive. I think that if we ask for sacrifice from our troops, we should ask for sacrifice from the American people."
Nonetheless, Ford will be a formidable candidate in the fall, especially, Republicans acknowledge, if Bryant or Hilleary win the nomination. Polling has shown him running even or ahead of all three GOP candidates.
With Democrats needing a six-seat pick-up to retake control of the Senate, Tennessee currently offers them their best opportunity outside of Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana, Ohio and Missouri.
Check The Fix tomorrow morning: The Friday Line this week will be our latest ranking of the hottest Senate races. Here's a link to last month's Senate rankings.
May 11, 2006; 3:45 PM ET
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