The Republican primary in the 5th Congressional District has historically been ignored, or at least been a pro forma exercise for whatever sacrificial lamb offers himself up for sure destruction by a Democrat.
This year, the race for the right to take on Rep. Jim Cooper was different.
David Hall of Goodlettsville emerged from a field of 11 Republican hopefuls, earning 28 percent of the vote in the district that includes all of Davidson County, half of Wilson County and a sliver of Cheatham County.
Unlike some who have come before him, this is no token candidacy. Hall reported nearly a quarter-million dollars in fundraising during the primary, of which $340 came in individual contributions, a $72,785 personal loan that must be repaid, and a questionable $200,000 "in-kind" contribution.
And he defeated more than token opposition.
Jeff Hartline of Mt. Juliet ran television ads and brought on a cadre of Nashville business elites for his finance team. He also brought on controversial, but no doubt effective, former state party communications director Bill Hobbs to push his message.
CeCe Heil was named one of Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” garnering her national television time and bringing in enough cash for plenty of yard signs and a handful of radio ads.
And there was plenty of controversy to keep the race interesting.
Hartline’s filings show he paid himself $4,359 every other week as a salary out of his campaign fund, a disbursement allowed under federal law in a scheme designed to give nonprofessional politicians and the less-than-independently-wealthy a chance to take time off from work to run for office. Sean Braisted, a local blogger, blasted Hartline for his “$105,000 annual salary.” The campaign said it really just works out to $54,000. Whatever math one uses, it rubbed some observers the wrong way.
Hall put a few polls in the field, but the results were widely derided. The first, published in July, showed an impressive 20-plus point lead, and a second issued the week of the primaries showed a slender lead — a 6 point margin with a 29 percent take for the eventual nominee. These polls were “stratified by AHC Group, a local media consulting firm,” according to Hall.
Hall disbursed roughly $200,000 to AHC “in-kind” during the second quarter. The second quarter report shows Hall receiving the same amount in-kind from AHC. Later, the FEC sent a warning letter to Hall about the contribution.
So just who is AHC? Their website doesn’t provide much information, just boilerplate marketing language about providing “a strategic edge” in market data collection. The domain was registered with VistaPrint, a postcard and business card printing service that also does some web hosting. The domain name wasn’t registered until July 10.
The poll — and the payment — were the source of much derision. One Republican insider dismissed it as “total crap.”
“Well, it wasn’t an unexpected victory for me,” Hall said from his election night party at the Airport Hyatt, echoing his polling.
Clearly, AHC — whoever they are — knew what they were doing. The results mirrored closely the official outcome.
The question remains, though: Why all the fuss over a seat so solidly Democratic?
In 2008, Cooper easily bested his Republican opponent, a largely unknown Mt. Juliet businessman named Gerard Donovan. Donovan is a nice enough guy — folksy even. He personally traveled to Washington, D.C., to file for the race. But it has been solidly Democratic in every election since 1874. Except for the strange times around the Civil War — when the political geography of the South was, to put it mildly, fluid — the 5th has been true blue. Old-timers even call it “the Jackson District.”
It’s a safe seat, one of hundreds around the country so staunchly aligned with one party that the opposition is token if it exists at all.
While Cooper continued that tradition in ’08, winning by nearly 100,000 votes, there was something a little strange in the returns. Donovan, despite spending almost nothing and having negligible name recognition, actually received a majority of votes in Wilson County, beating the incumbent by 2,000 votes of nearly 40,000 cast in Wilson.
That silver lining should have been the first clue that Republicans might just make a go of it this year.
Hall already has an advantage over Donovan and other forgotten Republican flounders from the past. He has money.
Republicans around the country — and in the South, particularly — believe they have a fighting chance in almost every district because of widespread disapproval of President Obama’s policies.
Even a relatively conservative Democrat like Cooper — best known for his views on fiscal restraint and his reputation as a wonk of the first order — can be tied to the liberalism of the national top-of-the-ticket Democrats. As a result, another theme is likely to be “Remember: Jim Cooper’s first vote will be for Nancy Pelosi.”
Interestingly, Cooper was suggested as a Speaker of the House candidate by NBC analyst Chuck Todd, tongue planted apparently in cheek, should the Democrats’ majority shrink. And Cooper himself has said the tea party doesn’t bother him, that he’s been on the deficit-reduction train all along.
“I’m glad my messages are being listened to. No one has been more outspoken on the deficit and debt. I’ve written a book about it,” he said. “So I welcome the tea party and the interest in the deficit and debt.”
Is there reason to believe, though, that Republicans can get a foothold during a year when tea parties are so popular?
“It is a very Democratic district and Cooper has been visible, especially during the recent flood. But if there is a year where a Republican might have a chance in the 5th, this is the year,” Vanderbilt University professor John Geer said.
But there’s a caveat.
“Jim Cooper is not in serious trouble here,” Geer said.
Cooper recognizes the political reality that it’s a mid-term election — always tough for the party in the majority — and that times are tough, but he points out that he’s not a typical Democrat, despite what Hall is likely to say.
“I’ve always aggravated my own party and the other party. I’ve been an independently minded reformer,” he said.
Hall disagrees — although he acknowledged Cooper was “a different animal.”
“I think everyone knows the areas that he’s vulnerable. … That’s what drove the Republican vote in this primary to unprecedented levels. And conservative people are stirred up, and that makes him very vulnerable,” he said.
Despite Hall’s pronouncement he has a shot at the venerable old Blue Dog, this race may be about something else.
Republicans are likely to maintain control of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, meaning the GOP holds the redistricting pen when the lines are redrawn next year. While the 5th has been associated with the Party of Jackson since the days of Old Hickory himself, a redder legislature could wipe it all away and paint Cooper into a fight in 2012.
“[T]he winner on the GOP side will … be in a stronger position to run again in 2012,” Geer said. “Oftentimes it takes a couple of runs to get the kind of name recognition necessary to compete with a visible political figure like Jim Cooper.”
The fourth paragraph of this story has been amended to reflect a clarification in the interpretation of David Hall's fundraising report to the Federal Election Commission.