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VOL. 42 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 27, 2018

With rough GOP primary, Tennessee Dems see gov's race chance

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NASHVILLE (AP) — While the Republicans in contention for Tennessee governor spend big to sort out who is most devoted to President Donald Trump, the two leading Democratic hopefuls recently stood side-by-side at a debate and, for an hour, pretty much agreed.

Aside from a few mild squabbles, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh have kept things cordial ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election. Meanwhile, the four-way Republican contest has run up a tab of $45.7 million and driven the candidates to the right.

The Democrats have had a less bruising road to the nomination, but their formula for getting elected Tennessee governor remains difficult. The nominee would need to peel off moderate Republicans and independents in a state that favored President Donald Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016.

The two have billed themselves as leaders who can break down partisan barriers and make divided government work during divisive political times. The last Democrat to win statewide in Tennessee — former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who won all 95 counties in his 2006 re-election — is using the same message in a bid for the U.S. Senate.

Dean and Fitzhugh both said they think they can prod a resistant Republican legislature to expand Medicaid. They support raising the minimum wage. And they both would have vetoed a new law toughening sanctuary city restrictions, even though Republican lawmakers almost certainly would've overridden the decision.

But Dean and Fitzhugh also have to tell voters where they agree with Republicans on policy.

Both have been happy to echo recent criticisms by term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam that the GOP gubernatorial contenders are focusing on things a governor largely can't change, including immigration policy. Dean went so far as saying he probably quotes Haslam "every day, if not every other day" and invoked Ronald Reagan in a Democratic debate.

Dean said he has stayed positive in the primary, following a Democrat's version of Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."

A former public defender, Dean said he's banking on voters not being interested in a referendum on Trump.

"I think President Trump obviously is more popular in Tennessee than in other places," Dean said. "But I don't perceive that as part of this race. I think what I have to do as a candidate is articulate my vision when it comes to education and economic opportunity and health care."

Dean's fundraising haul of $3.9 million tops Fitzhugh ninefold, and so far he's outspent the longtime lawmaker $4.4 million to $984,800. While the four GOP contenders have tapped a whopping $40.2 million of personal wealth, Dean has added $1.5 million of his own money and Fitzhugh has infused $766,000 of his own cash.

Fitzhugh, a banker and lawyer, is touting his long legislative record. Dean points to his management of Nashville during the recession and the city's rapid growth. The two rivals have kept their disagreements limited to debate stages, not pricey TV ad wars.

Fitzhugh faces the burden of trying to set himself apart in a race where he's vastly outspent. For example, he landed endorsements from the Tennessee State Employees Association and Tennessee Education Association, generally key supporters for Democrats, and several progressive groups.

"I think it ought to be an election, not an auction," said Fitzhugh, of Ripley.

Fitzhugh has criticized Dean's support for charter schools. Dean has responded that he doesn't think charter schools should be for-profit or located in rural areas.

Fitzhugh has also targeted the use of $7.4 million in federal flood funding on a downtown Nashville amphitheater under Dean's watch after 2010 flooding. Dean says that decision was appropriate, approved at multiple levels and widely publicized at the time. He pivots from the criticism to boast about the city's flood recovery.

And Fitzhugh has questioned Nashville's welcoming of the National Rifle Association's 2015 convention. Dean said he believes in the First Amendment and said the city would've been sued if it said no. Fitzhugh responded that public money from the local visitor's bureau didn't need to be used.

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