Bill Frist appears to be running for governor in 2010 — even if he won’t admit it.
The former Senate Majority Leader, who teaches at Princeton and discusses and practices health care on a global scale, appears to have increasingly turned his attention to grassroots Tennessee politics and Republicans in the state Legislature.
For example, earlier this month, Frist went to upper-East Tennessee to raise money for two Republican challengers for Democratic House seats. Those were two of the five fundraisers Frist has attended for either GOP incumbents or challengers for legislative seats — so far.
Frist was also the keynote speaker for the Carter County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, will speak to the Rutherford County Reagan Day Dinner next month, attended the spring meeting of the GOP’s executive committee and has or will be speaking to other grassroots groups.
And perhaps most telling, Frist was grand marshal at the Mule Day Parade in Columbia, a key event for Tennessee politicians.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Frist’s activities show he is “doing all of the things you would expect somebody who’s going to run for governor would do” prior to the gubernatorial election cycle.
“That’s one sort of feather he can put in his hat when it comes to the nomination process — I’ve been out there working for the state party and helping a lot of candidates,” Oppenheimer said. “He’s built up chits with them.”
Frist, who says he won’t announce his gubernatorial intentions until early 2009, has written in recent blog posts about the need to strengthen the Republican Party in Tennessee and how he and his political action committee, VOLPAC, were “devoting significant energy” toward electing Republican legislators.
Currently, the Republicans are four seats from a majority in the state House. The state Senate is 16-16-1, but the GOP has operational control of the chamber.
“Between now and Election Day our challenge as Tennessee Republicans is to organize, energize and inform our fellow voters across the state,” Frist wrote on an April 3 blog post. “You can bet VOLPAC and I will be leading the charge.”
In the past two election cycles, VOLPAC has contributed about $750,000 to either the Tennessee Republican Party or GOP legislative candidates.
Ed Cromer, the editor of the non-partisan political newsletter Tennessee Journal, said Frist’s ramped up grassroots activity follows a similar tact used by those with statewide ambition, perhaps most recently exhibited in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr.
“(Frist) is already known around the state,” Cromer said. “I think in this case it’s just sort of keeping a presence and helping some people who might later on be able to help him.”
Officially, spokesman Matt Lehigh said Frist “remains dedicated” to “helping strengthen the majority in the Senate and gain a majority in the (state) House.”
“He’s confirmed that he’s considering the possibility of running for governor, but that he won’t arrive until a decision until early next year,” Lehigh said.
Ambitious Republicans with eyes toward one day residing in the governor’s mansion will be watching Frist’s every move.
Those Republicans who may also have an interest in running include Ramsey, U.S Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) and Zach Wamp (R-Chattanooga) as well as state Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville).
If Frist gets in though, he may clear the GOP field, Oppenheimer said.
“I think they now have to put things on hold to see whether Frist decides to run because, ya know, the cost of getting in against Frist would be very high,” Oppenheimer said, referencing the two-term senator’s personal wealth, fundraising prowess and name identification.
Before ultimately deciding against a run, Frist heavily weighed running for president.
While he may still have those aspirations, this year’s presidential election may also affect Frist’s future political intentions and sway him against running for governor.
Oppenheimer speculated that if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, were elected president, Frist could be considered for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Or, McCain’s election may “block” Frist’s presidential aspirations, Oppenheimer said.
“There’s always a chance he will say, ya know, it’s not worth it,” Oppenheimer said. “Being a governor will be a headache, or if I have presidential ambitions, it will not be a stepping stone.”