Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Last on Hart

The story of Jim Hart winning the Republican nomination in the Eighth District has spread pretty widely by now and the usual presentation is by Democrats using it as a brush to paint all Republicans as racists finally coming out of the closet. Or it's the AP version of the story, with extra embarrassments added, like this USATODAY story.

Over the weekend, more pieces of the story have come out. One caller to the Andrew Clark radio show (Saturday and Sunday, noon to three, AM 600 WREC), who sounded knowledgeable and authoritative on the local GOP, but didn't identify himself as an offical, mentioned that ballot applications must first go to the State Republican headquarters, where the party has 10 days to reject the application. I'm not sure why that is. But the caller said that Hart's application was missed somehow until it was too late.

He also said that the TN GOP was focusing their energies on consolidating power in the General Assembly. It was the first of several attempts I've since heard to shift blame up to the Republican National Campaign Committee. Apparently, three secure Congressional seats in one county (John Tanner, Harold Ford and Marsha Blackburn) is just too much for the local GOP to watch.

Dennis Bertrand, the write-in Hail Mary pass, also called in. He said he came back from his service in Iraq to find out that Hart was running unopposed, so he leapt to the defense. What that implies is that the GOP somehow was unable to recruit a challenger from the nineteen county area that is the 8th District! Oh yeah, I believe that! Overworked as the Shelby County GOP was from the...uh...General Sessions Court Clerk race, they somehow didn't find the time or resources to tackle this? Well, as they'll be the first to tell you, the 8th District is only a tiny slice of north Shelby County. Not their ball!

One of the first rules of combat is to protect your flanks. It's basic strategy. Failure to plan for the foreseeable, to nail down the possibilities, is to leave an opening. Hart knows this; that's why he won. And it wasn't the first time he's done this either, so it's not as if the GOP should have been surprised.

Simply abandoning races because you don't have a chance of winning is stupid. You have to cover your bases anyway. The best example of a blown chance in Tennessee is Jimmy Naifeh. He's widely been viewed as unchallengeable and intimidating, so the Tipton County and Tennessee GOP has never even tried. Then, in 2002, when the Income Tax Wars left him battered and bruised, as vulnerable as he's ever, ever been, there was no one there to knock him over. Antonio Lopez, to his lasting credit, stepped forward and mounted a write-in challenge that came within a few points of beating him! A write-in! Naifeh!! Imagine if a party-backed, on-the-ballot challenger had been there, doing the ground work since day one. It was a lost opportunity.

(Dr. Jesse Cannon seems to understand. He's been campaigning in Naifeh's district since before the last election, patiently building up his base, readying the assault. Good for him. Support him. It's just too bad he, or someone like him, wasn't in place before. Naifeh was surprised and defeatable. Now he knows what's coming; he's preparing. It will be harder.)

Another example, this time from Alabama, my home state. Emory Folmar was the long-time Republican mayor of Montgomery, the State's capital and a sleepy backwater. The Republican Party in Alabama was a sad, fading shadow of a shriveled, useless organism, but somehow Folmar kept his office. He also served as the party's regular sacrificial victim in the Governor's race. Democrats were assured victory, so it was a duty he ritually performed.

Well, in 1987 Folmar decided he was tired of the ritual whacking and declined to accept the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Instead, it went to a really obscure man, Guy Hunt: mayor of Cullman and a Primitive Baptist preacher. Then came a bruising, ugly brawl between a pair of Democrats for their party's nomination. It became as vicious as anything we're seeing today, with a touch of entitlement thrown in. The whole thing became so nasty that Alabamians threw up their hands and, for the first time since 1874, elected a Republican as governor.

It was a stunner, and no one was as depressed as Emory Folmar. After years of defeat and humliation, he had just missed the brass ring. Because he assumed. In politics, anything can happen. It will. You have to be prepared.

I've been told by several folks that it's hard to recruit folks for those kinds of losing races, in part because no one likes losing and in part because no one wants a losing race on their resume. Horseshit. If the party becomes serious about acting like a group of smart folks, they'll let their campaign prospects know that sometimes they will just have to bite the bullet for the good of the party and run a hopeless race, just in case.

You don't have to expect them to win, but you can give them a reasonable goal. "Beat 10% of the vote." If they can do that, it shows promise and campaign skills. Just going out on the trail, raising money, knocking on doors, talking to folks, making speeches, directing strategy, coordinating media, etc., teaches valuable skills. Being willing to fall on your sword, to take one for the team, shows loyalty.

And it protects your flank from surprise assaults.

Some say, "But it costs money!" Just how much did this Hart PR disaster cost? How many voters who were undecided, or loosely pro-Bush, have seen the mangled story about racist Republicans and will draw their hand back from the "R" lever in disgust? How much money will have to be spent countering all the bad PR, reconvincing people?

Speaking of PR, where was Anne Truett's spine? I saw her on television news and she simply did not present an image -- nor speak the words -- of someone who is genuinely angry and upset. She sounded mealy-mouthed, not-quite-apologetic. Where she should have thundered loudly enough to convince the dead, she instead whined. I'm sympathetic to the Republicans, and even I doubted her sincerity! She needs a visit to the woodshed. The same caller to the Clark show I mentioned above said, "But we sent out press releases! They're right on our website!" What did that accomplish you? A few hundred write-in votes? The Shelby County GOP doesn't know what it's doing and heads must roll. Start with Truett.

Matt over at South End Grounds, a professional Republican, has a great write-up of the State election results. When I challenged him over the Hart controversy, he posted this excellent entry in response. I wondered about the fitness of Republicans to take over the reins of government in Tennessee, based on the Hart debacle. He points out that there's been a new generation of Republicans arising who aren't used to laboring under the heels of Democrats, currying favor and tidbits from them. Every year, more come into office.

But this process has been going on, in a steady tide, since 1994 and the Gingrich Revolution! How long will it take?

I dunno. If I was a powerful Republican, I'd wait until November 3rd, the day after the election, then begin to demand a purge of the ranks -- win or lose. Too much is at stake. Too many simple mistakes were made that should never have happened. Basic strategies and precautions should have been in place. A "farm league" of young people needs to be recruited to be place holders in hopeless races, just in case. It's good for them to have the first-hand experience; it covers your ass in a worst case scenario. The Hart incident should not have happened. Period. But I suspect it will be business as usual.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, call me a Republican.

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