NASHVILLE — Tennessee’s 2010 race for governor is crowded with would-be contenders, but a new statewide poll shows former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., enjoys a major built-in advantage after two successful statewide races in 1994 and 2000.
Ninety-three percent of the 625 likely voters surveyed said they recognize the name of Dr. Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, while 58 percent said they still view favorably the physician turned politician, who left office in early 2007.
Just 15 percent of poll respondents saw Dr. Frist in a negative light, while 20 percent were neutral about him.
“He is the most popular of all of the people we listed as potential candidates,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the survey on behalf of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Dr. Frist has said he will make a decision about whether he will run for governor sometime after the November presidential election. A top Frist adviser and fundraiser, Linus Catignini, did not return calls to his office on Friday and Monday.
The Mason-Dixon poll, conducted Sept. 22-24, has a margin of error of plus or minus four percent. It did not include any head-to-head matchups among potential gubernatorial candidates.
Other survey results show that most candidates who have expressed an interest in running for governor have some work to do in terms of becoming known statewide.
For example, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who repeatedly has said he plans to run if Dr. Frist does not, was unknown to 48 percent of those surveyed.
Among the 52 percent who recognized the Chattanooga congressman’s name, 22 percent saw Rep. Wamp favorably, while 7 percent had an unfavorable impression. Another 23 percent were familiar with the name but were neutral about him.
“Certainly that’s just an early blush of awareness across the state before anybody kicks into campaign mode,” Rep. Wamp said.
He noted that the 3rd Congressional District he represents spans much of Republican-rich East Tennessee and includes the major media markets of Chattanooga and Knoxville.
Mr. Coker said name identification “is never a problem” provided one can raise enough money to pay for things such as television advertising.
“If you can raise money, you can raise your name identification,” he said, calling it a “solvable problem. You can build name ID. The thing you don’t want are high negatives.”
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political scientist Robert Swansbrough said it is just as well Rep. Wamp is not risking a GOP primary confrontation with Dr. Frist.
He said the poll shows Rep. Wamp “has got a heck of a long ways to go. And with those kinds of stats, to take on somebody like Frist, who’s got his own money and can raise serious bucks, I don’t see where Zach’s got the wherewithal.”
Rep. Wamp is more evenly matched against two other congressmen included in the survey — U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., Dr. Swansbrough said.
“That would be a horse race if it were the two of them,” Dr. Swansbrough said of a Wamp/Davis general election contest.
Other survey results showed 94 percent of those surveyed recognized the name of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tennessee.
But there was also a downside for Mr. Ford, whose unsuccessful 2006 U.S. Senate battle with Republican Bob Corker became one of the fiercest and closest election struggles in the entire country that year.
Only 35 percent of poll respondents view Mr. Ford favorably. Almost as many — 33 percent — said they hold a negative view of Mr. Ford, while 26 percent were undecided.
“That race was nasty on both sides,” Mr. Coker said of the 2006 Senate race, noting that both now-U.S. Sen. Corker and Mr. Ford got “slimed a bit.”
Sen. Corker was recognized by 92 percent of respondents. Thirty-seven percent view him favorably, while 28 percent see him in a negative light.
Among those who like Dr. Frist was poll respondent Rich Guider, a Murfreesboro conservative and self-described conservative.
“Frist’s name did stand out, of course,” Mr. Guider, 35, said. “He’s done a lot for the community. He seemed like a neat gentleman. He stands out in the conservative realm as well.”
Sale Creek resident Mark Harwood, 46, a poll respondent, said he prefers Dr. Frist if he were to run. He said he has a “good opinion” of Mr. Ford “so far as what he was doing in Washington.”
But if Dr. Frist decides not to run, Mr. Harwood, a pastor, said he probably would back Rep. Wamp, who is from Chattanooga.
“Well, I guess I’d have to say Zach Wamp, because I don’t know anything about the others,” Mr. Harwood said.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith noted that it costs huge amounts of money to mount a statewide campaign.
Mrs. Smith, a Hixson resident, said a consultant recently told her that the 2010 governor’s race would cost a “minimum of $20 million” from start to finish.
“It could be a really heated primary on both sides depending on who runs,” Mrs. Smith said.
Other poll findings show:
n U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is not recognized by 44 percent of voters. Of those who do, 29 percent view her favorably and 10 percent see her unfavorably; 17 percent were neutral.
n Rep. Davis is not recognized by 45 percent of voters. Among those familiar with his name, 24 percent were favorable, 9 percent unfavorable and 22 percent neutral.
n Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the state Senate speaker who has the title of lieutenant governor, is not known by 64 percent of those responding to the survey. Of the 36 percent who recognized his name, 8 percent saw him favorably, 7 percent unfavorably and 21 percent were neutral.
n Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a Republican, is unknown by 63 percent of Tennesseans. Of those who recognize him, 10 percent were favorably disposed, 7 percent were unfavorable and 26 percent were neutral.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...