Toeing the GOP Party Line 

There’s stiff competition among the entrants in the 8th District congressional race, but no one’s breaking away yet.

Candidates Kustoff, Leatherwood, and Luttrell at last week’s Agricenter forum

Jackson Baker

Candidates Kustoff, Leatherwood, and Luttrell at last week’s Agricenter forum

The 8th District congressional race has moved on a bit since we last examined it, but the essential pecking order still holds. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is still regarded in most quarters as the favorite in the Republican primary field (which, face it, is where the ultimate decision will be reached).

As noted before, Luttrell has associations of various kinds with several corners of this West Tennessee district; his Shelby County prominence, as two-term sheriff and current two-term mayor speaks for itself. He also boasts connections with Madison County, site of Jackson, the district's other major urban entity, where he graduated from Union University, and with Lauderdale County, where several relatives reside.

Luttrell has done well in early polls and (with voters, anyhow, and with most neutral observers) has fared successfully as chief executive of Shelby County, presenting stable budgets and avoiding the sense of fiscal desperation that has dogged successive mayors of Memphis.

Everything isn't hunky-dory for Luttrell, however. His fund-raising has lagged behind that of two of his main challengers, state Senator Brian Kelsey, of Germantown, and former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, and he, like them, has a campaign war chest which is dwarfed by that of wealthy perennial candidate George Flinn. The radiologist/broadcasting magnate has loaned his campaign an astounding $3 million and is seemingly able to run expensive media campaigns from here to election day or doomsday, whichever comes first.

Moreover, circumstances at Luttrell's home base, Shelby County government, are not without vexation for the mayor. As he prepares for the stretch drive of the Republican primary season, he faces a potential wrangle with factions within the Shelby County Commission. 

Part of the problem is a need to stretch the fiscal 2016-17 budget to cover troublesome shortfalls in funding for public schools and other county obligations. The struggle to do so has revived long-dormant suspicions within the commission that Luttrell's administration has been unresponsively (and even misleadingly) close to the vest with its expenditures and fiscal estimates.

Moreover, several Republican members of the commission are openly supportive of other congressional candidates and, consequently, are not exactly loath to see Luttrell put in embarrassing predicaments. 

Fairly or not, a number of observers, both on and off the commission, interpreted the recent mass appearance of disgruntled county corrections employees before the commission in that light. That circumstance, an add-on agenda event in which the employees noted their lower pay levels vis-à-vis Shelby County jailers, forcing Luttrell to publicly defend the disparity, was organized by Commissioner Mark Billingsley of Germantown, a leading local Kustoff supporter.

Luttrell has to suspect that, as the presumed front-runner in the congressional race, he will come in for potshots from competitors. That knowledge was at least partly behind the mayor's recent plea, at a candidate forum held at the Agricenter on Tuesday of last week, for "a clean campaign" and for strict observance of the apocryphal "Eleventh Commandment" attributed to Ronald Reagan: That no Republican should speak ill of another.

Fat chance. That Luttrell will be taken to task by one or more of his competitors for his endorsement of Governor Bill Haslam's ill-fated "Insure Tennessee" proposal is a near certainty and has been foreshadowed in Kelsey's teasing accusations at an earlier forum of the East Shelby Republican Club in Germantown that "we have Republicans in this very race who supported extending Obamacare."

There is something of a rub to that approach, however. The recent history of the national Republican presidential-primary campaign, a process dominated by the outlier Trump, would indicate that ritual GOP talking points of that kind would seem to have worn somewhat thin, and the health-care issue in particular could turn out to be a non-starter — especially in view of an imminent recommendation on Medicaid expansion from the state House task force appointed by Republican Speaker Beth Harwell.

But Kelsey, whose campaign literature and public pronouncements emphasize his identity as a "proven conservative," seems intent on holding to the established GOP liturgy and has made a point of boasting his leadership in reducing or eradicating or prohibiting various state taxes, notably a state income tax, which a constitutional amendment he authored has rendered illegal. Nor is he the Lone Ranger.

Last week's forum at the Agricenter, sponsored by the Mortgage Bankers Association and limited to Shelby County candidates, was an occasion for the GOP candidates to trot out their party's familiar bromides — sometimes with risible results, as when they were asked to comment on government policies affecting agriculture.

Having already done a paint-by-the-numbers denunciation of governmental regulations in other public spheres, the contenders on hand — Flinn, Kelsey, Kustoff, Luttrell, Register of Deeds Tom LeatherwoodRaymond Honeycutt, and David Maldonado — by and large continued the single-minded bashing process, perhaps not properly mindful that agriculture has historically been a field in which government policy, in the form of subsidies and other incentives,  has served to benefit farmers.

More than the others, Leatherwood, who as a state senator once served the rural counties of Tipton and Lauderdale, seemed most cognizant of this, remarking on farmers' desires, in the face of declining subsidies, for legislation providing significant crop insurance.

On most issues, however, the GOP candidates sounded remarkably similar. What it came down to was that they were all against government interference with the free-market process, a credo repeated from person to person and from issue to issue with minimal variation.

The effect of peas-in-the-pod monotony was largely the result, however, of the warmed-over questions provided for the occasion and of a format which allowed for neither interchanges between the candidates nor follow-up questions on given issues. Moderator Joe Birch, of WMC-TV, did his best but seemed frustrated at times by the restrictions. 

Although nothing was asked on such fertile matters as national trade policy, there were at least two questions that might have allowed for useful distinctions to be made. One was whether the candidates would be supporting Trump's presidential candidacy. One way or another, they all found a basis for saying yes. A near exception was Luttrell, who answered, "I support Trump with reservations." The mayor would later say privately he was concerned about the putative nominee's penchant for "alienating" blocs of voters.

Similarly a question about the horrific slaughter of 49 people in Orlando could have elicited attitudes toward gays or guns, but the candidates trained their attention on the specter of ISIS and what they all put forth as the Obama administration's shortcomings in combatting terrorism.

The general homogeneity of responses at the Agricenter forum highlighted a conundrum of sorts: Is the Republican litany now so fixed that there no longer exists any room for a candidate to stage a breakaway from the obvious?

The GOP candidates seem determined to be in a toe-the-line contest — though Brad Greer, a Jackson advertising man who has raised a fair amount of money and hopes to profit from vote-splitting among the Memphis contingent, has shown a disposition to make a wave or two, notably in sounding the alarm, a la Trump and Bernie Sanders, about the ill effects of free-trade agreements.

If the outcome of the GOP primary comes down to a matter of who has the best combination of financial resources and political-network support, then Kelsey or Kustoff or Luttrell will likely prevail, though Flinn can't be counted out.

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