Johnson City Press: Without Haslam, Senate race could plunge into ugliness

Without Haslam, Senate race could plunge into ugliness

Johnson City Press • Jul 12, 2019 at 7:30 AM

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s announcement Wednesday that he would not make a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2020 is understandable but regrettable.

Haslam is a known, stable commodity who served the state well in his eight years as governor, and he was the obvious frontrunner the moment our three-term senator, Lamar Alexander, announced his retirement.

But who could blame Haslam for his decision not to run? National politics are at their most rancorous since the Vietnam War, and the U.S. Congress is ground zero for the bitter divisions in this country. There appears to be little if any room for moderate considerations, forthright negotiation, diplomacy and statesmanship.

We’re left with disingenuous rhetoric, finger-pointing, jibber-jabber and character assassination. Anyone who enters the fray at this point is a glutton for punishment, a sword-bearing ideologue or both. Haslam’s affable manner and pragmatism would have been a welcome departure, but he was sure to face bombardment from the more partisan elements of both parties.

Haslam’s absence from the contest likely throws Tennesseans back into the kind of uncertainty and vitriol that dominated the 2018 election season both in the gubernatorial primary and the general election for the U.S. Senate. We’re already dreading those useless, incessant TV ads.

Lacking a household name with a proven statewide record, the GOP primary race to succeed Alexander has the real potential descend into another contest to see who can be the most conservative — the most pious, the toughest on immigration, the hardest on Democrats and the most like President Donald Trump.

Both major parties are forced to pander to their bases, as evidenced by the outlandish theatrics in the quest for the Democratic presidential nomination — the contest for who is the least Trump-like.

One of the president’s closest allies in Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, also stated Thursday that he would not be a candidate. Likewise, a spokeswoman for former U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a failed candidate in last year’s acrimonious race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said Black would not seek Alexander’s seat.

Given Tennessee’s overwhelming record of voting Republican in recent statewide elections, it’s highly unlikely that any Democrat would garner enough support to win the Senate seat. Whoever emerges from the GOP field almost certainly will represent this state in Congress.

The names of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty and West Tennessee’s U.S. Rep. David Kustoff have been floated. Neither is exactly a familiar face, at least in this part of the state. It’s still early, and we can expect to see some contenders stake their ground by year’s end.

One can hope there were lessons learned from last year’s gubernatorial election. Gov. Bill Lee earned his office in part by staying above the nastiness — both to win the nomination and in the general contest against Democrat Karl Dean.

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