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 NashvillePost.com's political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net.