NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The rallies are big, the field operations extensive and the expectations for candidate visits are high.
It’s not quite Iowa, but Tennessee — a state long ignored until much later in the cycle, and then often just turned to for donations — is now one of the biggest hubs for GOP political activity in the country.
“I’m trying to remember the last time we were seeing this much attention in a Republican primary, this many people paying attention to Tennessee and Southern states,” said Tre Hargett, the secretary of state. “I can’t think of a time.”
Tennessee has 58 delegates up for grabs on March 1, a day when much of the South will vote in the so-called SEC primary. That’s the third-biggest slate of delegates available that day, following Texas and Georgia; but it’s more delegates than are available in any of the first four states.
And Tennessee has an added advantage over its Southern neighbors: its media markets. An ad buy in Knoxville, in the eastern part of the state, can also hit corners of Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Getting television coverage in Chattanooga, in the southeastern corner, plays in Georgia and Alabama, while a Memphis presence also gives a candidate audiences in Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. These Tennessee cities are smaller than, say, Atlanta —and in the cases of Knoxville and Memphis, smaller than a number of other midsize Southern cities — generally meaning that it costs less to buy a spot, and with the bleed-over into other states, it’s more cost-effective.
“We touch so many states, you get a big bang for your buck when you advertise,” said Tennessee GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes. “We’re a state uniquely positioned for a candidate to campaign in.”
Agreed Hargett, “In touching eight states, we give people an opportunity not only to reach into Tennessee … but to touch on other states as well.”
The ad buying in Tennessee has not yet begun in earnest, though candidates have benefited from the amplification of free media appearances. Ted Cruz hit five stops in two days across the whole state of Tennessee in August, part of a bus tour through the South, and then returned in late December for two more big rallies, including one here in Nashville last week.
Ben Carson, who appeals to a slice of the evangelical electorate here, has visited at least seven times, including stops for fundraisers and book signings. Marco Rubio has made one campaign stop so far, to the dismay of activists who want to see more of him — he appeared in Chattanooga over the summer at a fundraiser and rally (though he, Cruz and Carson also all attended the National Rifle Association’s cattle call in April). Donald Trump has held three large and heavily covered rallies in the state since the summer, and also appeared at the NRA event.
The extensive airtime candidates receive here, coupled with a primary calendar change, a solid donor pool and the ideological diversity of the GOP in Tennessee explain why both deeply conservative candidates like Cruz, and politicians like Rubio who appeal to more mainstream Republicans, see a path, and are investing significant time and effort into a state that in previously cycles was largely ignored.
The three candidates with the most momentum in the state now are Cruz, Rubio and Trump, said Julie Hannah Taleghani, chair of the Williamson County GOP, an influential, wealthy and conservative county right outside of Nashville, with Cruz and Trump outpacing Rubio.
“I just see those three campaigns having a really big presence at the grass-roots level, being strategic in how they put together their teams,” she said.
Cruz started campaigning and organizing in the state earlier and more extensively than any other candidate with his August bus tour and two splashy rallies, in Knoxville and in Nashville, days before Christmas. The Texas senator has brought on prominent conservative activists to his state leadership team, and one of the team members, a prominent pastor, is shepherding an effort to recruit a supportive pastor in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. That emulates Cruz’s strategy in other, more prominent early-voting states including Iowa, where he is the current poll-leader, and South Carolina.
“Now look, Tennessee and Texas, a whole lot of folks from Tennessee came to start Texas,” Cruz told hundreds of conservatives who gathered in a Christian youth center in Nashville in December to hear him speak. “And we agree on just about everything — except football. Let me tell you, the role the state of Tennessee is going to play — it is going to play a critical role in helping ensure the next Republican nominee and next president of the United States is a strong and proven conservative.”
Cruz’s rallies were big, but not compared with those put on by Trump in Knoxville, and nearby Franklin. There, people were aggressively clamoring to get into the venues, even when Trump had packed them to capacity.
“He drew some of the largest crowds I had ever seen at a political rally,” Haynes said. “What shocked me most was, late into his speech, people were still trying to pour into the arena by the thousands to hear him. People were outside, trying to get in. I still hear a significant amount of talk about him.”
Trump has also hired a state director and counts several lawmakers as supporters.
Rubio is well-organized too, though.
“Organizationally, Rubio is doing a tremendous job at the grass-roots level, the leadership in [state chair and former congressman] Zach Wamp is inspiring and motivating and energizing,” said Taleghani. “If they want that momentum to bear more fruits at the grass-roots level, we have to have Sen. Rubio inspire and energize as well.”
Sounding very much like an Iowan who expects more candidate face time, she added, “I’m saying, ‘Rubio, come on, you’ve got an incredible team working, they need you here to keep the momentum going.’”
Rubio has a plausible path to success with Tennessee’s more moderate Republicans; there is a sizable establishment presence here, particularly in the eastern part of the state. But he is also thought to have an opening with some influential evangelical leaders who prefer a less strident tone, even as Cruz tries to lock down that religious slice of Tennessee’s electorate.
“I still say it’s a three-man race” in Tennessee, said Scott Lamb, a Nashville-based author who is involved in evangelical activism.
And it still might be in March, Tennessee Republicans hope. They see Cruz, Trump and Rubio all with a path through the first four nominating contests, giving Tennessee voters a real shot at influencing the party’s nomination process.
“There’s going to be some people in Tennessee who are maybe surprised to find out our vote is actually going to matter. Tennessee actually has significance here, something at stake,” Lamb said. “We haven’t already nominated Jeb Bush before the whole thing starts.”
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