On paper, former Representatives Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant appear to be products of the same cookie-cutter: Both are lawyers who went to the House as part of the "Gingrich class" of 1994, both are stalwart conservatives with lifetime ACU ratings of 98%, and both left Congress in ’02 to run unsuccessfully for statewide office. (Hilleary narrowly lost the governorship to Democrat Phil Bredesson and Bryant lost the Republican Senate primary 53% to 43% to now-Sen. Lamar Alexander.)
But Hilleary’s performance at the polls four years ago has clearly yielded greater dividends, and he is now considered the front-runner in the primary. The Desert Storm veteran lost the closest Tennessee governor’s race since 1894 to Bredesson — in part, pundits and pols agree, because Hilleary had the burden of running right after unpopular outgoing GOP Gov. Sundquist had unsuccessfully tried to impose a first-ever income tax on the state. Both Hilleary and Bredesson vigorously opposed any income tax.
A Mason-Dixon poll last year showed Hilleary with name recognition of 82% statewide, compared to 42% for Bryant and 26% for Corker. Hilleary’s own OnMessage, Inc. survey that shows him leading Bryant 33% to 15% statewide among likely Republican primary voters.
Unlike Hilleary or Bryant, construction company owner Corker has his own personal resources that he can deploy in the primary. While both of the former U.S. House members are strongly pro-life, Corker is from the pro-abortion wing of the party. Although Corker served as commissioner of finance and administration in Sundquist’s cabinet, he steadfastly maintains that he was not for the proposed state income tax.
"But when he was mayor of Chattanooga," Hilleary was sure to point out to me during the conference in Memphis last month, "he raised taxes twice in four years."
Hilleary was also careful not to say an unkind word about Bryant, a friend and now his rival for conservative votes. In his words, "There are enough conservative votes to go around." But he also voiced concern about whether "there is enough conservative money to go around" to overcome a possible self-funded media strike by Corker in the closing days of the primary campaign.
"Look, guys like him fill seats in the Senate all the time," said Hilleary, referring to Corker’s packing a political wallop because of his personal exchequer. "But here is one of the last true chances anywhere in the country to elect a genuine grass-roots conservative to the Senate — if conservatives unite."