Alexander, Ball in Heated Tennessee Senate Race 

The rightward-tending GOP Senator shifts to the attack against his Democratic challenger.

Alexander and Ball at Farm Bureau forum

Alexander and Ball at Farm Bureau forum

As noted in this week's cover story ("A Change Election"), the closest thing to a compelling candidate race on the November 4th election ballot is the statewide contest for a U.S. Senate seat between Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander and Democratic challenger Gordon Ball.

Some weeks ago, in an interview with the Flyer, Ball theorized that, like Joe Carr, Alexander's Tea Party-backed opponent in this summer's Republican primary, he would be ignored by the highly favored incumbent. Meanwhile, Ball cited some poll figures that he regarded as hopeful, showing Alexander polling at 47 percent and himself at 32 percent. 

Given that Alexander, somewhat surprisingly, had failed to cross the 50-percent threshold in the GOP primary and had edged out runner-up Carr by only 9 percent, those figures gave Ball, a Knoxville trial lawyer with a healthy personal bankroll, some plausible grounds for optimism.

Skip to the present, with early voting underway and less than two weeks to go before judgment day on November 4th: Ball is publicizing a new poll showing the gap between Alexander and himself to be a matter of 45 percent to 32 percent, and this modest, almost infinitesimal change prompted an optimistic statement from Ball's spokesperson Trace Sharp.

"The polling for Lamar has continued to drop as Senator Alexander began his negative campaign," Sharp declared, meanwhile repeating her candidate's consistent call for a formal debate with the incumbent.

Between the first poll and the second had (to echo the late poet T.S. Eliot in "The Hollow Men") fallen a shadow. Instead of ignoring his Democratic opponent, Alexander, in tandem with the state Republican Party, had taken to almost daily attacks on Ball, characterizing him as one dedicated to the "agenda" of  President Obama (though the challenger had largely distanced himself from the national Democratic Party), and, taking advantage of the discovery that Ball's website was essentially a pastiche of talking points from other Democrats, accusing him of "plagiarism."

Alexander accounts for the shift from ignoring Carr to attacking Ball as a case of avoiding "family" disagreements in his primary. "I placed not one single ad, I didn't mention anybody's name. I knew I'd want to get the family back together." He feels under no such compunction in the race with Democrat Ball.

Ball's persistent entreaties for a debate notwithstanding, there had been only one joint appearance involving himself and Alexander, an early-morning appearance, along with other candidates for various offices, at a state Farm Bureau breakfast last week in Cookeville. The meeting, closed to the public but not the media, had been billed in advance as a low-key affair without any direct dialogue opportunity as such.

The event instead turned into something of a sandbagging. Right off the bat, Alexander launched an attack on Ball, characterizing his opponent, a successful trial lawyer who had won substantial judgments against big-interest corporations, as the kind of attorney who would represent "a cocaine smuggler" and who made a fortune "suing capitalists."

Alexander made an effort to turn one of Ball's prime boasting points, a legal action against a polluter that helped clean up the Pigeon River in East Tennessee, against his challenger, seeming to lump such initiatives in with what he said were over-zealous and bureaucratic efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of "mud puddles."

Once he had recovered from his surprise at Alexander's onslaught, Ball made some accusations of his own, telling the attendees that the Senator was "trying to fool you" and was a prime example of what needed replacing in Washington.

Both candidates were interviewed after the event by the media, and Alexander received some grilling on the matter of business involvements that had made him wealthy during the course of his service in such public roles as governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and senator.

Alexander's financial dealings have received special attention from the Ball camp — one involving his contracting of official events at a "Blackberry Farms" resort owned by his wife, Honey, while serving as UT president, and several others, some undertaken while Alexander was governor, in which minimal investments with associates had reaped substantial long-term profits. The Senator's description of one hefty return, worth several hundred thousand dollars, as a "finder's fee" particularly galled Ball.

In a sit-down interview this week while in Memphis for a summit with local health officials on the Ebola crisis, Alexander defended his ability, as he put it, to "capitalize on opportunities," singling out his lucrative involvement with others, following service as governor, in Corporate Child Care, Inc., which merged with another such company and would become, Alexander said, a "billion-dollar" enterprise.

"I spent half my time before I was a Senator in private life," Alexander said. During that time I was very active in co-founding a law firm and several businesses." Alexander slipped easily from his private recollection into one of his campaign talking points. "I made my living as a capitalist. He [Ball] made his by suing capitalists."

Ball has attempted to characterize himself as a political moderate, echoing traditional Democratic Party views on social and economic issues but coming out against Common Core educational standards in an effort to court disaffected Tea Party voters. Many of those had shied away from Alexander during the GOP primary and supported Carr, who has pointedly declined so far to endorse Alexander in the general election.

For his part, Alexander, once regarded as a political moderate himself, has sounded more and more conservative, mindful of a conspicuous change in his party's center of gravity. Whereas Ball has called for an increase in the minimum wage, for example, the senator has made a point of opposing the very concept of a minimum wage, criticizing it as the very stuff of "socialism."

Like the great majority of his party mates, the senator continues to oppose "Obamacare" and makes an effort to refute news reports touting the president's signature health-care program as a success.

Asked about his apparent movement to the right of the political spectrum, Alexander says, "I'm not sure I'm that different. I think our party's different. Our party is larger, more conservative, and more successful. So I have to be the nominee of that party."

• There are a few other contested legislative races, but none which appear likely to result in surprise outcomes.

City Councilman Lee Harris, a Democrat, would seem to have a forbidding lead over Republican Jim Finney in state Senate District 29, and, as mentioned in this week's cover story, the GOP's George Flinn is expected to have a hard going against Democrat Sara Kyle in District 30. (Independent David Vinciarelli is also on the ballot in that race.)

There are several House contests. State Representative Barbara Cooper is favored against her perpetual GOP challenger George T. Edwards III in District 86. Democratic incumbent Larry Miller should likewise prevail over Republican Harry Barber in District 88. Ditto with incumbent Democrat Raumesh Akbari over Republican Samuel A. Arthur Watkins in District 91 and Democratic state Representative G.A. Hardaway over Colonel G. Billingsley of the GOP in District 93.

Democrat Dwayne Thompson is running hard against GOP incumbent Steve McManus in District 96, but, as noted in this week's cover story, the way is uphill.

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