Congratulations Tennessee, you’re getting national attention. Out of all the states holding elections this year, you are holding “The Nastiest Primary in the Country,” according to Politico.
I work in the television business, which runs on advertising dollars. Yet people tell me that they mute their TV when they see ads for Bill Hagerty or Manny Sethi, both of whom are running for United States Senate.
The race has turned into a daily battle of one-upmanship, with each calling out the other for a seemingly endless list of sins. The photos of their opponents are doctored to make them appear evil and menacing.
“My opponent once made eye contact with Barack Obama!” Countered by, “You think that’s bad, MY opponent was in the same room with Mitt Romney!” “Oh yeah, well MY opponent starts his day with a cup of coffee. Just like Nancy Pelosi!” “Aw, that’s nothing! MY opponent once had 11 items in his buggy in the “10 Items or Less” lane! Is that the kind of man YOU want representing us?”
Or something like that. I have started muting them too. I feel like I need a shower after watching their ads.
I can say this, because I have never run for office. Even though I idolized the politicians who visited my family’s store when I was a kid, I’ve never taken the plunge. I guess there’s never been that “groundswell” that candidates often cite, when announcing their intentions.
You know what I’m talking about. It’s in every newspaper story about a potential candidate. “People are coming out of the woodwork asking me to run, but for now, I’m just exploring the possibility of a race.” Translation: “I wish some people would ask me to run, and better yet, send me some money!”
For a brief time, I considered dipping my toe in the political puddle. A high-ranking local officeholder asked me to come by for a quick chat. We had a good relationship, but I couldn’t imagine what this was about. He told me, “I’m up for re-election in a couple of years, but I’m ready to retire. You would be the ideal person to succeed me. My employees do all the work, and I know you would keep things running smoothly.”
I was flattered, and I told him I would think about it. Before I could render a decision, he decided to run for re-election anyway. My ego was further deflated when I learned he had made the same pitch to several others who would have been “the ideal person.” So much for my budding political empire.
What kind of campaign would I have run? Would I have been so power-hungry that I would have shed my decency to win at any cost? My wife would not have allowed that to happen. She is honest to a fault, sometimes painfully so. If I had promised to clean up crime, she would have stood up and yelled, “Then why won’t you pick up your dirty socks, Mr. Clean?”
I asked someone close to a candidate about this year’s nasty ads, and he told me, “It’s out of his hands. These campaigns are largely funded and run by out-of-state political groups. They know these ads work, and they run them all over the nation. But I promise you, once he wins, he can be himself.”
I responded, “So let’s say he wins. Six years from now, if he runs for re-election and it’s a tight race, will he employ these same despicable tactics?” I didn’t hear back, but I think we all know the answer.
I grew up in Alabama, where four-term Governor George Wallace was the king of nasty campaign tactics. In 1958 he lost his first bid for governor, and soon realized he had been beaten in the game of gutter politics. Using a then-common racist epithet, he famously vowed that he would never allow that to happen again.
Sure enough, four years later, he took the low road. He never again lost a statewide election.
(Ironically, in 1982, still suffering from a 1972 assassination attempt, he won his fourth and final term after expressing sincere remorse about his previous tactics. He apologized to those he offended, and won enough of their votes to prevail.)
Even the few positive ads we see today appear to be factory-made. Do all of these candidates wear plaid/checked shirts, carry guns, inherit their deep religious convictions from saintly parents, and amass their million-dollar fortunes by “starting from scratch?” Sure, some of this may be real. But you have to wonder, don’t you?
Oh, and I’m not just picking on Tennessee here. My friends in Georgia and Alabama, your Senate races are heating up, and likely headed for the mud pit as well. Go ahead and find that mute button.