Embarrassing. That’s the only way to describe the debacle that was the Tennessee Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. A day after the election, Democratic leaders were scrambling to disavow their party’s duly elected nominee, Mark Clayton, a 35-year-old flooring installer from Middle Tennessee who serves as vice president of an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as an anti-gay hate group.
Clayton, who finished first in the Aug. 2 primary by collecting 48,000 votes statewide, has also been described as a keen aficionado of conspiracy theories. One such conspiracy was related last week by writer Tim Murphy on Political MOJO, the online political blog of Mother Jones Magazine. Murphy noted: “Clayton believes the federal government is building a massive, four-football-field wide superhighway from Mexico City to Toronto as part of a secret plot to establish a new North American Union that will bring an end to America as we know it.”
In addition to his strident opposition to gay rights, Clayton also warns of the “godless new world order” that is about to besiege this country.
Murphy writes that Clayton “sounds more like a member of the John Birch Society than a rank-and-file Democrat. He says he’s against national ID cards, the North American Union and the ‘NAFTA superhighway,’ a nonexistent proposal that’s become a rallying cry in the far-right fever swamps.”
He sounds charming.
If I were a conspiracist, I might think someone put Clayton on the ballot to act as a Manchurian Candidate. But there is no conspiracy here. Clayton is the man Democratic voters have selected to challenge the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, in November. Corker was already considered to be a heavy favorite to win re-election by a landslide. The Democratic Primary simply made it a lock.
So how did Clayton best six other candidates in the field to win the nomination? Leaders of the Democratic Party say it was because his name was first on the ballot. That makes sense. The second place finisher, Larry Crim, appeared second on the ballot.
Park Overall, an actress and environmental activist who was recruited by Democrats in Nashville to get into the race, placed third. For the record, the Greeneville native’s name was fifth on the ballot — below Gary Gene Davis and Dave Hancock.
T.K. Owens of Johnson City — a frequent candidate for local and federal offices — finished last in the primary. While party leaders apparently didn’t bother to investigate Clayton’s background beforehand, they did warn primary voters not to support Owens after it was reported he had been charged last year with solicitation of a 7-year-old minor.
Overall, who was something of a reluctant candidate at the start of the race, told me last week she thinks the outcome of the Democratic Primary “was not just a sad turn of events, but rather tragic. How it happened, I don’t know.”
Politics, as Overall has learned, is a little different than making movies or starring on a hit TV show. Overall says she “was called upon by the party to deliver a clear message to Democrats across the state.” She says she is “disappointed” to not be able “to continue to make good on that promise.”
Overall says she is also concerned by “the trending to the extreme right by the middle and west of this state.” She is also “shocked” that her progressive ideas found so many supporters in East Tennessee.
“I found Democrats distressed and feeling wildly helpless about this dangerous and highly misguided march to the far right,” she wrote in an email to me last week. “There is a cliff, and we are falling off it.”
Despite the disappointing outcome of the primary, Overall told me she “adored” the experience of the campaign and believes she has learned some valuable political lessons. She credits Tommy Thompson, her campaign manager, with furthering her education.
“He taught me more about politics in just a few months than I had learned to date,” she said. “He told me not to make any enemies, and he is right. So, in short — I bite my tongue!”
I wouldn’t be surprised someday to see Park Overall’s name on a ballot again. The political bug appears to have bitten her pretty good.
“I wish I had had more of an opportunity to fight for all unions and all the disenfranchised, but I made a stab at it,” she said. “I don’t regret it. And I will carry on like a liberal all the days of my life.”
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.