State Sen. Roy Herron has been vilified daily by Republicans since entering Tennessee’s 8th District congressional race with the sudden retirement of 20-year incumbent John Tanner.
That’s no surprise given today’s cutthroat politics. As a legislator since 1987, Herron has cast thousands of votes, many of which now supply ammo for operatives predictably trying to tar the senator as a liberal wacko. But even veteran observers of campaign mud baths have been taken aback by one line of attack, and some say it crosses the threshold of acceptability.
In e-mails to Tennessee media, the National Republican Congressional Committee is questioning Herron’s manliness, suggesting he’s effeminate and possibly even gay — a serious slur in the Land of Bubba that is West Tennessee’s largely rural 8th District.
Tennessee Democrats constantly worry they’ll appear out of step with the state’s conservative constituents. The parking spots reserved for Democrats in the Legislative Plaza’s underground garage commonly are occupied by pickup trucks with bumper stickers pledging allegiance to guns, God and country.
Herron, a former Methodist minister and teacher at Vanderbilt divinity school, has been married for 22 years and is the father of three sons. On the stump, he emphasizes his own macho pursuits.
“I majored in basketball and duck hunting in high school,” he told listeners recently. “I would have majored in girls, but I had glasses and braces and acne, and that didn’t work out.”
But in presenting the senator as a wuss, the NRCC has seized on comments Herron made on his campaign blog about physical fitness and his love of running.
“Rather than protecting small businesses, rather than protecting taxpayers, he often seems more interested in watching what he eats, making sure he’s jogging enough miles every day, and just watching his body image very closely,” NRCC spokesman Andy Seré told blogger Eric Kleefeld , who was the first to point out anti-gay innuendo in NRCC press releases about Herron.
Accompanied by a picture of Herron in running shorts, one of Seré’s e-mails slapped the Democrat for opposing a ban on gay adoption and gratuitously brought up Barney Frank, the famously gay congressman from Massachusetts.
“With a record like Roy’s, Barney Frank isn’t going to be able to out-position him on the left,” Seré wrote.
Another Seré release with the same photo read, “Roy Herron is a career politician. And a lawyer. And a Vanderbilt professor. And an author. But he’s not a businessman. So why can’t Roy Herron just be straight with West and Middle Tennesseans and admit it?”
Seré’s attacks have been vague enough to allow for deniability, however implausibly, and he told The City Paper it’s “categorically absurd” to accuse him of running an anti-gay smear campaign against Herron.
But political scientists point out it’s a legerdemain long practiced in campaigns: Plant a slanderous seed in the minds of voters while denying you’re doing it, then hope it grows and bears fruit on election day.
Herron’s likely Republican opponent is a farmer and gospel music singer named Steve Fincher from the community of Frog Jump, Tenn. His Web site  features a picture of a John Deere tractor.
“I do think it crosses a line in terms of general acceptability,” Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlmann said of Seré’s attacks. “It does not speak well of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party that candidates feel they can make inroads there with such pandering.”
Meanwhile, in an e-mail to The City Paper, MTSU professor John Vile said the NRCC’s tactics could backfire.
“Because of the appearance of hypocrisy, an individual who has taught divinity is arguably more vulnerable to attacks on lifestyle and moral issues than one who has not (just as Sarah Palin’s home life is more of a target because she emphasizes its wholesomeness), but only if the claims are actually credible (and I see no evidence that those against Herron are) and don’t smear the one throwing the mud as much as the target.”
Herron himself isn’t commenting. In a statement, his campaign castigates Republicans for “trying to demonize” the “Eagle Scout” and “family man,” adding “Surely, their mothers raised them better.”