In Davidson districts, battles for party’s nomination heat up

Monday, July 16, 2012 at 12:53am

Tennessee’s political map looks quite different after Republican-led redistricting and the spate of Democratic retirements that followed. As a result, no matter which candidates are celebrating in November, the Davidson County delegation will include several new names when state legislators return to the Capitol in January.

Looking at less favorable districts this time around, Nashville Democrats Rep. Gary Moore, Rep. Janis Sontany and Sen. Joe Haynes opted not to seek re-election this year. The races for those open seats seem likely to be much closer than Davidson County — a blue enclave in what has been a reddening state — is generally used to seeing.

But first come the primaries.


Senate District 20

Both parties have identified Haynes’ old seat, in the dramatically redrawn Senate District 20, as a critical target, and observers have named it as perhaps the premier legislative race in the state. But the traditionally Democratic seat, which Haynes held for 28 years, now represents a district that is, by design, split more evenly in terms of party affiliation. While the Tennessee Democratic Party has labeled it in more hopeful terms, as a “toss-up,” the Tennessee GOP has it down as 53 percent Republican.

Attorney Phillip North — listed among the cream of the party’s new crop by party officials since he announced his candidacy — is running essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination. He technically has a challenger in James Baxter, but the perennial candidate Baxter, who recently nominated himself as a candidate for the interim Davidson County Clerk seat, hasn’t made much of a showing. Indeed, operatives from both parties are proceeding as if North were already the nominee.

According to financial disclosures filed last week, North raised more than $100,000 in the second quarter, which ended June 30. The same report shows his campaign has $176,951.94 in cash on hand.

“It’s pretty clear that the party is supporting Phillip,” state Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese told The City Paper. “He had a great quarter, and he’s gaining momentum. He’ll be in a great position to take on whoever stumbles out of that primary.”

The primary he refers to, of course, is the GOP race to see who would challenge the presumptive nominee. Democrats are hoping the three-way primary will leave the GOP nominee politically bruised and underprepared for what promises to be another tough campaign. Not surprisingly, Republican operatives see it differently. They’re betting that a tough primary fight will leave the eventual nominee stronger and better organized.

As a general rule, the state party stays out of primary races — at least publicly. While elected Republicans may well have personal allegiances, public endorsements of primary candidates where there is no incumbent aren’t common. Privately, though, party insiders are looking at Dr. Steve Dickerson as the favorite to secure the nomination. They said they expect the Democrats to put a lot of resources into the District 20 race because it’s a traditional stronghold and having an “authentically conservative” senator in Davidson County would be a big blow to an already-reeling party.

The most recent financial disclosures show Dickerson’s campaign has brought in more than $300,000 to date — including a $100,000 self-endorsed loan — and just over $100,000 in the second quarter. He has $158,310 on hand.

“As a physician and small business owner I understand the importance of a strong financial backing,” Dickerson said in a release announcing the six-figure haul.

His closest challenger, Nashville businessman Rob Mortensen, raised $31,040 in the last quarter and enters the third with $16,593 on hand. In a release after the disclosures were made public last week, Mortensen’s campaign did not mention the considerably smaller dollar amount, but touted Mortensen’s “broad grass-roots support” and his approach to campaigning.

“Borrowing six-figures to get a job that pays less than $20,000 annually makes no sense and is not a conservative approach,” he said.

Also in the race is David Hall, a business owner as well, who pulled off a surprise victory in 2010 in the Republican primary race for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. His campaign in the state Senate District 20 primary has been mostly self-financed thus far, but political observers aren’t writing him off, in light of his proven ability as a campaigner.

All three candidates typify what state GOP executive director Adam Nickas said will be an advantage for Republicans in the general election.

“I think our candidates’ ability to understand what it takes to run and operate a business, to meet a payroll and balance a budget,” he said. “I think that’s really going to resonate with voters right now because that’s what they’re frustrated with President Obama and Washington, D.C., Democrats is that they don’t seem to understand those things.”


House District 50

In District 50, Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell is running unopposed in the Democratic primary to replace outgoing Democratic Rep. Gary Moore. Puttbrese said Mitchell is a “proven entity” because of his service on the Metro Council and that he also has solid support among conservatives in the area. With no motivating opponent, Mitchell raised $49,096 in the second quarter.

Puttbrese also noted that District 50 is almost completely contained within Senate District 20, where North will be campaigning, and completely contained within U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper’s 5th Congressional District. Democrats argue that having three “strong campaigners” all working the area hard will be to the Democrats’ advantage when it comes to the general elections.

As for who will face Mitchell, one Republican strategist told The City Paper that the inside track belongs to Charles Williamson, but the race between him and D.J. Farris will be close. While Farris outraised Williamson last quarter, Williamson lent his campaign $95,000 earlier this year. Dave Hall is also running.


House District 53

Running in the Democratic primary for Sontany’s seat in the House are Jason Powell and Metro Councilman Jason Potts. Powell previously ran for a state House seat when he challenged Rep. Mary Pruitt in the 2006 Democratic primary. In terms of fundraising, Powell leads, having brought in $8,465 to Potts’ $3,550.

On the Republican side, Ben Claybaker would appear to be the favorite over Tonya Miller. A party strategist predicted Claybaker will indeed win the nomination and called him “the real deal and a great candidate.” Last quarter, Claybaker raised $20,285, while Miller brought in just $4,680.

Both parties agree the district still leans Democratic.


House District 58

In House District 58, Puttbrese told The City Paper with a chuckle, Democrats are pretty confident about their chances. The seat’s longtime holder, Pruitt, faces a primary challenge from Steven Turner, but there are no Republicans vying for the seat.

Pruitt has faced primary pressure before, from Powell in 2006, and from Turner, who lost to Pruitt in the 2010 primary by just 167 votes. While party members aren’t likely to be seen speaking ill of an incumbent in public, there are those who feel it’s time for a change. One party insider said Pruitt has built up ill will among party members at the community level and that on a many important issues, she has been silent. Party officials would not comment on the record, however, except to say that they’re not picking sides in the race.

Pruitt’s fundraising totals are modest — $3,100 in the last quarter — but she has received contributions from House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. As of publication, Turner’s financial disclosure report had not been filed, but he told The City Paper he estimates his campaign brought in around $6,500 last quarter. Harold Love is also on the ballot, but has filed no disclosures.