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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Are Hilleary, Bryant the future or past of the GOP?
Mar 07, 2005 12:00 am
The Republican field for the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee is already crowded. Certainly, the embryonic GOP primary is an affair of quantity and not quality.
In fact, the GOP field with one notable exception is not really scraping the bottom of the barrel as much as it is plumbing the recycle bin.
Former Congressmen Val Hilleary and Ed Bryant are the bookend twins of the GOP revolution if 1994 in Tennessee. A decade ago now, Hilleary and Bryant were swept into office amid the country's first early bout with Bill Clinton malaise, a political movement that changed the face of Tennessee and American politics.
What Hilleary and Bryant both had in spades was ambition. What they lacked was staying power and perspective.
Both men sought to climb off their perennial status in the Congressional back benches in 2002 and reach for higher office. Both of them failed while facing much deeper thinkers and better political minds.
Hilleary lost a close race to now Gov. Phil Bredesen, the man who proved as long as one is basically conservative, being elected in Tennessee still has little to do with being a Democrat or a Republican.
Bryant lost a lopsided primary battle to now Sen. Lamar Alexander. Bryant positioned himself as the grassroots conservative in the race and tried to live off his one 15-minute slice of fame – deposing Clinton flame and "that woman" Monica Lewinsky.
In retrospect, it is a fair question to ask if Tennessee is not much better off without Bryant and Hilleary serving in higher office.
Alexander appears ready to carry on the statesman tradition of other Tennessee Republicans in the senate, most notably Howard Baker and more recently Bill Frist.
Bredesen has proven there still are two political parties in Tennessee, and his management of the TennCare crisis while not pleasing to liberals in his own party has been admirable, professional and refreshingly frank.
Ultimately, Bryant and Hilleary may simply keep the GOP's best statewide candidate out of the general election mix – Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.
Corker is a millionaire businessman who is regarded by members of both parties as somewhat of a financial guru if not an outright great thinker in matters of public policy and budgeting.
However, though his fund-raising has far outpaced both Bryant and Hilleary, both of the former Congressmen have a very substantial head start in name recognition among likely GOP voters due to their own statewide races.
Perhaps the only saving grace for dedicated Republicans is the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Harold Ford Jr., appears to have put his own budding senate campaign on hold.
The young congressman from Memphis appears intent on letting the drama surrounding his uncle, embattled State Sen. John Ford, play out before getting into the senate race in earnest.
At some point, though, Tennessee Republicans are going to have to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they want to look forward or backward. The good old days of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America are gone.
Are Bryant and Hilleary the future or the past of the Tennessee GOP? It is a question only a primary season can answer.