Worst candidate? With Clayton, Tennessee Dems hit bottom

 

White Creek, Tennessee

The Democratic nominee for the US Senate in Tennessee has no campaign headquarters, a fundraising drive stuck at $278 and one yard sign. Not one type of yard sign. One sign.

And with the election just days away, he has not actually put that sign in a yard. Instead, it resides inside candidate Mark Clayton's pickup. "VOTE FOR," the sign says. The rest is hidden by the seats.

"Jesus did not have a campaign staff. And he had the most successful campaign in human history," Clayton said recently, when asked if all this adds up to a winning run against Sen. Bob Corker, R. Jesus "didn't even have pictures or a website."

This may be America's worst candidate.

Clayton, 36, is a part-time flooring installer, an indulger in conspiracy theories — and for Democrats here, the living personification of rock bottom. In a state that produced Democratic icons including Andrew Jackson and both Al Gores, the party has fallen so far that it can't even run a good loser.

Instead, it has this guy. In Tennessee, Clayton's unlikely run is providing an absurdist coda to a long Democratic disaster. Something like falling down a flight of stairs onto a whoopee cushion.

"It's pretty sad. I mean, when your nomination is not worth having, that's embarrassing," said Will Cheek, a Nashville investor who has been a member of the state Democratic Party's executive committee since 1970. "That would appear to be where we are."

Every election, of course, is crowded with losers: the sacrificial lambs, the one-issue zealots, the novelty name-changers (Thomas Jefferson, of Kansas, is running for Congress. Santa Claus, of Nevada, is running for president).

But Clayton stands out. Nobody who has the opportunity he has — a major-party nomination for the Senate in a nail-biter election in which every Senate race has outsize importance — has so little chance of taking advantage of it.

In Wyoming, Democratic challenger Tim Chesnut is a long shot; his actual slogan is "Chesnut is the best nut for Senate." But he at least has his party behind him. In Washington, Republican challenger Michael Baumgartner recently told a reporter to "go [expletive] yourself." But he at least has raised nearly $1 million.

In Tennessee, Clayton's policy ideas set him apart from many other Democrats: He is unusual in opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but he's downright exceptional in saying that the Transportation Security Administration "mandates [transsexuals] and homosexuals grabbing children in their stranger-danger zones."

He has been a volunteer for Public Advocate of the United States, a Falls Church, Va.,-based organization that was branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay rhetoric.

During Clayton's failed Senate run in 2008, his website suggested that the U.S. government might be replaced with a "North American Union" and that Google was working against him at the behest of the Chinese government.

But his ideas about campaigning itself might be even more unorthodox. Almost everything other candidates do, Clayton said, is wrong.

"There's other people who have gone out and put signs all over, and gone and talked to people," he said on the phone. "And they get less votes. They go down."

He explained that "a lot of people don't have time to take off work and [from paying] their bills to go and stage a campaign rally to make it look like something's happening. . . . That's the news media's problem" if there aren't rallies to cover, he said.

"If there are people out here who don't understand that there's a different way of doing things, then that's their problem. We won the primary."

The son of an activist who lobbied Congress on behalf of Christian schools, Clayton does little campaigning in the physical world. He focuses on his Facebook page (382 "likes") and website.

When a reporter asked about upcoming rallies or public events, Clayton declined to name any. One evening last week, a visit to an address listed for his campaign led to Clayton's 92-year-old farmhouse outside Nashville.

The one sign was in the truck. The truck was in the driveway. The candidate was coming out to get his mail. Was he confident that he would beat Corker?

"Of course," Clayton said. He is a youthful-looking Army Reserve veteran and was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and slightly long sideburns. How could he be so sure he'd win?

Clayton turned and walked away. "I don't know why you're here," he said, having reached the porch. "I don't come to your house."

The last time Corker ran for Senate, in 2006, Tennessee Democrats nominated Harold Ford Jr., a centrist congressman and the son of a congressman. Ford came within three percentage points of becoming the first black man elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction.

After that, things fell apart.

Tennessee Democrats, who'd watched their conservative voters drift to the GOP, finally lost the state House in 2010. That had been a financial lifeline for Democrats, since the legislature has broad powers over patronage.

"That pretty much was the end," said Cheek, the executive committee member. "Because we have nothing left. In the other low points, we had the Election Commission, we had the Building Commission . . . If you wanted to get state deposits into your bank, those were all ours. And that's where you'd raise your money."

Losing those powers "really kicked the props out from under the financing of the party," Cheek said.

This year, the cash-poor party faced a rematch with Corker, now a popular incumbent with $14 million to spend. It went looking for a candidate who could run on the cheap, and they thought they'd found someone in Park Overall.

"I said to him that night on the phone, 'Ain't you got anybody — g-----n it, Chip — to run?' And he said no," recalled Overall, an actress best known for playing the sassy nurse Laverne on the 1990s sitcom "Empty Nest."

Overall, 55, had returned to her native Tennessee as a well-known liberal. She was talking to the state Democratic chairman, Chip Forrester.

She resisted. For a while.

"Then, he caught me drinking one night," Overall recounted in a phone interview. "And I said: 'Aw, hellfire. Let's just do it.' "

It didn't go well. Overall refused to spend more than $100 of her own money on the campaign ("I was a big actress years ago. Money goes."). She said the party wasn't much help, either: It loaned her a book called "Deer Hunting With Jesus" to help reach religious voters. Overall was also sidelined for weeks by illness.

When the primary arrived on Aug. 2, she came in third, with 24,000 votes. In second place was Gary Gene Davis, a Chattanooga man who spent less than $100 ("And that was in gas," Davis said).

In first place was Clayton, with 48,000 votes. He had spent just $65 to get them. But, state Democratic officials said, Clayton had a crucial advantage: The ballot was alphabetical.

"Many Democrats in Tennessee knew nothing about any of the candidates in the race, so they voted for the person at the top of the ticket," the party said in a statement the next day. Because of his ties to Public Advocate of the United States, the statement said, "the Tennessee Democratic Party disavows his candidacy [and] will not do anything to promote or support him in any way."

Today, it's easy to visit Tennessee and not realize that there's a Senate campaign going on.

At Corker's headquarters in Nashville, the campaign hasn't even bothered with a sign out front.

Clayton, for his part, has released a few online ads and a revamped website. But a recent drive to raise $450 in donations has stalled south of $300.

It's clear, however, that he is savoring a victory already — over the rest of Tennessee's Democrats.

"If there are people who don't believe that there's a campaign here, then guess what? They can come to Tennessee, if they're a voter, and they can see Mark E. Clayton, and next to Mark E. Clayton there's going to be a 'D,' " he said on the phone. "Like it or not, Mark Clayton is the Democratic nominee in Tennessee."

Among others in his party, there's hope that this is really the bottom. They're encouraged by a new crop of Democratic mayors in the state's big cities. And they're trying to figure out a screening test that will keep people like Clayton off the Democratic ballot in the future.

But it's hard to find a definition of "Democrat" that everyone here likes.

"We have a large segment of our party that's pro-life. . . . And you know, a lot of us have guns," said Jim Bilbo, an executive committee member from Cleveland, Tenn. "We're not going to come up with language saying, you know, 'We believe in a woman's right to choose,' and all that stuff.

"All of the suggestions that I have seen have been so broad that they're almost meaningless," Bilbo said. "Like, 'Stand up for the principles of the Democratic Party.' Well, what are those principles?"

In this election, Democrats have told their voters just to write in a name instead of voting for Clayton. But at this low ebb, they don't have another name to suggest.

Just pick somebody, voters are told. Word is, a lot of early voters used "Big Bird."

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