“Shocking!” That was the reaction one local Republican had to poll numbers that showed state Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, was trailing his opponent in the 6th District primary. It was just a few days before the end of early voting, but word was already circulating around Washington County that the incumbent had lost his re-election bid.
To the casual observer, this race appeared to be a yawner. Even the more astute thought Ford would have an easy time in vanquishing an opponent with no apparent political pedigree. They were wrong.
I might have chalked up this talk of doom as just Ford supporters trying to gin up last-minute support for their candidate had it not been for the fact these were seasoned campaign pros doing the talking and they were talking specific poll numbers. “Dale’s in serious trouble,” one said to me.
On Thursday, the polling proved correct when Ford’s bid for a fourth term to the state General Assembly came to an end in the Republican Primary. He was defeated by Micah Van Huss, a first-time candidate who owes much of his campaign success to a generous benefactor in Middle Tennessee.
How could a political newcomer like Van Huss pull off such a win? The answer is easy — money. And not his own. A report in The Tennessee Journal (a weekly newsletter dedicated to Tennessee politics and business) noted that Andrew Miller, a Nashville businessman, was “financing independent radio attacks on state Sen. Doug Overbey, and Reps. Charles Sargent, Debra Maggart and Dale Ford in their Republican primaries.”
The Tennessee Journal also reported that state campaign finance disclosures showed Miller was the sole contributor (at $50,000) to Tennesseans 4 Ethics in Government, a political action committee that paid $30,000 to Gill Media in Brentwood for the radio attack ads.
According to The Tennessee Journal, “Miller also is shown as the lone donor, of $71,000, to Truth Matters PAC, which made $63,000 in contributions to 10 Republican legislative candidates, including the opponents of Overbey, Maggart, Sargent and Ford.”
Two of Miller’s targets lost their bids for re-election — Ford and Maggert. The latter, who serves as chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, also faced the wrath of members of the National Rifle Association for what they believed to be her role in scuttling the “guns in parking lots” bill earlier this year. Meanwhile, Overbey and Sargent had no trouble winning their primaries.
A second-quarter financial disclosure found Miller, who lives in Franklin, had contributed $1,400 to the campaign of Ford’s challenger. His wife, Tammi Miller, was reported to have also given $1,400 to Van Huss. Other prominent contributors included James Gregory of Bristol, who gave $1,400, and Nashville car dealer Lee Beaman, who gave $1,000 to Van Huss.
Ford collected more than $19,950 during the same period. Most of his campaign contributions were $400 or less, although he did collect some big checks from a few of his colleagues. House Speaker Beth Halteman Harwell, R-Nashville, gave Ford $1,400, while state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, contributed $1,000 each.
Meanwhile, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborugh, gave Ford $250. Hill, by the way, faced no opposition in the 7th District GOP primary.
Other notable donors to Ford’s campaign include Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who wrote a check for $1,000, as did Bobby Jobe, Johnson City, and Jim Powell, the CEO of Powell Construction in Johnson City.
Miller’s direct involvement in the 6th District race troubles some Washington County Republicans. One asked, “Why in the world would someone in Middle Tennessee care about who we send to Nashville?”
Several local government officials also told me they were disappointed to see Ford lose his seat in the House because they considered him to be their go-to guy in Nashville. That’s not something they say of Hill.
Republicans eating their own is certainly not new, at least not in Northeast Tennessee. Ford’s defeat reminds more than a few local politicos of the 2004 GOP primary that saw Hill knock off incumbent Rep. Bob Patton, R-Johnson City. Hill was aided in that race by a series of attack ads funded by individuals who lived outside the 7th District.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.