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State Senate race watched statewide
Aug 18, 2006 12:00 am
Mere days after 17th District Democrats chose Bob Rochelle to face incumbent Sen. Mae Beavers, the knives are out in a race which could have statewide implications.
Top Democrats and Republicans alike have identified the 17th District as one of three seats crucial to control of the state Senate. All their eyes are upon this rather unique contest, with Rochelle enjoying many aspects of incumbency: high name recognition, campaign experience and a fund-raising edge.
And, for better or worse, as a former senator Rochelle has a long legislative record for touting and targeting.
To earn the contest against Beavers, Rochelle defeated primary challenger Aubrey Givens with about 60 percent of the vote. And depending on who you ask, Givens' showing could be bad news for Rochelle or for the senator herself.
Some Republicans see Givens' share of the vote as a sign many Democrats don't want Rochelle back.
"I don't see how any conservative Democrat could vote for Bob Rochelle," Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey said. "… Mae will get those conservative Democrats, especially fiscally conservative Democrats, but also socially conservative."
But while the Rochelle campaign is taking nothing for granted, the consensus there seems to be Democratic primary voters won't be jumping ship en masse come November.
"We won't get 100 percent of those, but we're going to work hard to convince the voters Bob's the right guy for the job," said Will Funk, a spokesperson for the Rochelle campaign.
Democrats see Beavers as a "weak senator" whose defeat could return control to their party.
"She has no record she can hang her hat on in her years in the General Assembly in the House and the Senate," said Mark Brown, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party. "She's just known, really, as an obstructionist."
On the other hand, Ramsey described Beavers as dedicated to conservative values, particularly in the fiscal realm.
"She got very upset … that we did not give more tax relief to the citizens of Tennessee," Ramsey said, referring in part to her ultimately-doomed measure to reduce and eventually eliminate the sales tax on food. "We overcollected about $400 million in taxes, yet we didn't get as much tax relief as she wanted."
And for her part, Beavers recalled the 2002 state income tax battle which helped propel her from the House to the Senate chambers.
In particular she took exception to Brown's portrayal of her as a "back-bench seat warmer."
"I don't think a back bench seat warmer would have gotten out and fought the state income tax like I did, fighting a governor from their own party, or would have made a proposal to reduce and eventually eliminate the sales tax on food," Beavers said, adding she has also shepherded through several road projects while in office.
As for Rochelle's campaign, Givens' 40 percent suggests the income tax issue – much ballyhooed by both Givens and Republicans – is a dead issue.
"When you've got both sides running a real campaign, you're not getting 100 percent of the vote," Funk said. "(But) Aubrey tried to make this a campaign about the income tax, and it didn't work."
Yet from the other side of the aisle Ramsey sees it as a good sign for Beavers.
Givens started "from basically zero name recognition … to high name recognition," Ramsey said, "and I think that shows the discontent even the Democrats have with Bob Rochelle."
And with both races receiving statewide attention, the money seems sure to follow. Beavers and Rochelle alike have already received contributions from top legislators and their political action committees. In addition, Rochelle came into the primary campaign with more than $200,000 in the bank from his 2002 campaign fund. Despite her own healthy campaign fundraising, the incumbent finds herself behind her challenger at last filing.
In addition to the 17th District, Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and Sen. Don McClary of Jackson – both Republicans – face what are predicted to be tough re-election races. McClary, who voters elected as a Democrat, switched parties earlier this year.
The 27th District in Jackson "is a Democratic district," Brown said. "It trends Democratic in performance, and that's one that should be represented by a Democrat."
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.