Post Politics: Unserious charges prove gubernatorial candidates' seriousness

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 9:45pm

Raising money for state legislative races doesn’t necessarily mean anything about Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s commitment to the race for governor, does it?

A little over a week ago NashvillePost.com’s Ken Whitehouse reported that Ramsey’s active fundraising for his legislative leadership political action committee, RAAMPAC, was giving some Republicans pause about his commitment to the governor’s race.

Due to the current rules regulating political donations to sitting legislators, Ramsey must raise the bulk of the money he needs for his primary campaign before the legislative session starts in January. Holding a fundraiser for RAAMPAC, while under the gun, some say, betrays a certain lack of laser-sharp focus toward the task at hand.

If Ramsey is raising money for both his PAC and his gubernatorial campaign, Republicans fear, the lieutenant governor must be, if only subconsciously, entertaining the possibility of defeat or withdrawal.

But Ramsey is who he is because of RAAMPAC. The current Republican majority in the legislature is built from bricks fashioned out of the money funneled through that PAC to Republican candidates.

Republicans got elected and stayed elected in Tennessee because of his largesse and the largesse of his PAC. It would be untoward to suggest that Ramsey has bought political friends with the money he has doled out, but he certainly didn’t make a whole lot of enemies doing it.

Donors who want to see Ramsey succeed and who want to see his power increase will not only max out to his campaign but contribute to his PAC too. RAAMPAC’s coffers are power for Ramsey — whether it gets spent on the governor’s race or not.

The fact that he is fundraising for his PAC should not be taken as a cue about his seriousness in the governor’s race, but it doesn’t mean the issue of seriousness can be ignored, either. Put simply, Ramsey doesn’t need to be governor. He doesn’t need the office to satiate any craving for power, and he doesn’t need it to shape Tennessee’s political agenda. He already has most of the things the governor’s office would give him.

If he loses the governor’s race, Ramsey still will be the lieutenant governor. Whoever the governor is will have to deal with Ramsey and an increasingly radical state legislature that he helped install. Being governor would be better, no doubt. But Ramsey’s position, if it isn’t the catbird’s seat, is right next-door.

Ramsey doesn’t have a lot to lose here. He’s not up for re-election in the Senate. His power and position are not at risk.

Contrast that with Congressman Zach Wamp. Wamp doesn’t have the personal wealth to fall back on like Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam does. He doesn’t have the successful business or the position of Ramsey. To run for governor of Tennessee, Wamp has given up everything. He has abandoned the congressional seat he has held for 16 years and has little to no net worth to show for it. Wamp has no fallback, no parachute. He is all in.

Sure, Ramsey is serious about being governor but is he “Wamp serious” here?

Then again, look at it another way. If history is any guide, modern Tennessee governors usually get a second term. The executive mansion might not be a lock for the GOP this year — but it’s pretty darn close. If Ramsey lets this opportunity pass, he doesn’t get another chance for eight years, by which time the other party may have the advantage. So it’s not as if he can just shrug off a loss this year.

Yes, Ramsey already has significant power. But clearly, the office of governor gives him more. If Ramsey ever wants to be governor, it is now or never.

So if anyone was hoping that Wamp and Ramsey were unserious enough to drop out of this race, they have another thing coming. But then, that’s what all this talk of Ramsey being unserious is about. Wamp needs Ramsey out of this race, and vice versa.

The state of Tennessee has become more and more “red” and the Republican Party has become more radical, but this state is not so red and radical that the conservative vote can afford to be split. One candidate, either Wamp or Ramsey, has to get the other out of the game so that they can have half a chance against Haslam, the moderate favorite.

That is why this talk about the seriousness of Ramsey and Wamp’s campaigns will only increase as the campaign wears on and the urgency for a withdrawal draws near.

Are Ron Ramsey and Zach Wamp serious about being governor? Most definitely. You’ll be able to tell by how serious the charges of unseriousness become.

Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com’s political blogger. Visit Post Politics at http://postpolitics.net