Rounding the clubhouse turn

With just weeks left in Nashville’s mayoral campaign and a large number of undecided voters, the political horse race is (almost) anyone’s to win

June 15, 2023 6:01 am
Ten of the 12 candidates for Nashville mayor at the May 10 Arts and Entertainment Forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ten of the 12 candidates for Nashville mayor at the May 10 Arts and Entertainment Forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)

With a scant four weeks until the start of early voting the state of the race to become Nashville’s next mayor is, like a typical summer day here, hazy with a chance of a popup storm or two that will probably never come. As the gaggle of hopefuls navigate an unremitting stream of joint live forums around the city, voters are starting to tune in, but are holding their fire: two recent polls find almost half of us undecided. Chatting up voters one gets the feeling that a good deal of the candidate support that does exist is soft, which is to say unsettled and mutable. 

To quickly recap the plausibles: we have in the mix a pair of Metro Council members (Sharon Hurt and Freddie O’Connell), a pair of state senators (Jeff Yarbro and Heidi Campbell), the city’s elected property assessor (Vivian Wilhoite), and three newcomers to running for office (economic development maven Matt Wiltshire, and business types Jim Gingrich and Alice Rolli). 

Those we might imagine to be “leading” candidates are bunched up tightly inside the margin of error in these recent polls. With the undecided share swamping the small numerical differences between them, the polls we have tell us not very much about where this will end up. Even so, between the numbers that do exist and the sense we have of the kinds of campaigns being run, it is possible to engage in some informed speculation about the state of play.

The forums — several each week, sometimes two in a single day — are a uniquely Nashville test of candidate endurance. They challenge not just your ability to endlessly regurgitate your own talking points with performative freshness and vigor, but also your stamina keeping that practiced beatific smile plastered as you take in your opponents’ over-rehearsed drivel for the umpteenth time. 

Sen. Heidi Campbell. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Heidi Campbell. (Photo: John Partipilo)

It doesn’t take watching all that many forums to grasp how the candidates so easily retreat into their own individual set pieces. To illustrate with a frivolous hypothetical, imagine a forum moderator puts this question to the field: “Should Vanderbilt University expect to win more football games than it loses next season?” 

Campbell’s reply will underscore how vexing a challenge it is and offer the coach less an actual answer than procedural guidance for finding it. Hurt will focus on the need to improve every part of the game so that each individual fan in every part of the stadium will be happier. O’Connell will exhaustively detail the things the coach is already doing to turn things around and pledge to push it further. Wilhoite will offer to make the team look more like the fan base. Wiltshire will insist that having someone with experience winning ball games at both public and private institutions is the key. Yarbro will paint an eloquent picture of how wonderful it will be to have a winning season. Gingrich will tell us that the coaches have had a playbook for years but we need his experience to turn it around on the field. Rolli will wonder if team members are reading at grade level and whether there’s enough police presence at games keeping fans safe.

Of course this oversimplifies (though for a few of them not much). Perhaps I’ve just spared you the need to watch any of the remaining forums — just come up with your own questions then plug and play. Yet forums do yield some payoff: they may not differentiate candidates much on policy because there isn’t much daylight between them ideologically, but they do surface contrasts on knowledge of how Metro works, understanding of how local political gears mesh, and visions of what kinds of policy gains are realistically attainable. 

Drawing on their experience in Metro Nashville,  O’Connell and Wiltshire stand out in contrast on policy chops — an advantage with voters whose thing is concrete policy. For those seeking more of a socioemotional connection with their candidate, Hurt and Wilhoite — despite their abundant Metro experience — consistently seem to prefer aspirational framing over policy elucidation. 

Yarbro and Campbell talk policy to be sure, but their understandably state-level focus as legislators has them playing catch-up on Metro issue specifics. Compulsive forum-watchers (neurotic might be the better adjective for us) can see that both have made substantial progress, but the gap remains. 

Sen. Jeff Yarbo at the May 10 Arts and Entertainment forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jeff Yarbo at the May 10 Arts and Entertainment forum. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gingrich, who in earlier forums sounded like someone who just moved here and knows not very much about how the city works, has also made progress: he now sounds like someone who fairly recently moved here and knows a moderate amount about how the city works. Rolli conveys focus on the particular corners of Metro that animate her candidacy — she can cite chapter and verse on taxes, literacy, and police staffing — but seems unmotivated to project more than passing acquaintance with much else going on in city government. 

In sketching the state of the race a month out from the start of voting, it is helpful to take stock of the campaigns as campaigns. This matters for two reasons. One is that in electoral terms Nashville is a big city with a lot of people. Finding and persuading the voters you need — getting to your “win number” as they say in the biz — is expensive and multifaceted. Any one channel — forums, TV/radio spots, social media, digital, mail, field, yard signs, house parties — won’t by itself get you to the runoff, but if you’re going to find your voters and “touch” them several times you need the resources and infrastructure to do some of pretty much all of it. Second, how you generate and run a complex enterprise like a mayoral campaign tells us something about how you’ll do at running a city. Here are some observations on the state of campaigns.

Perhaps not surprisingly since they’ve been in the race far longer than the others, Wiltshire and O’Connell project as furthest along, with active cascades of social media and other digital, copiously sponsored events, and visibly energetic field operations. Wiltshire, a first-time candidate who started off with low name recognition but quickly amassed (and partially self-financed) a big financial war chest, has spent his way — $575,000 on TV counting — into the margin-of-error cluster of first-tier candidates in one recent poll. “The state of the race is moving in our direction,” summarizes campaign manager Kyle Buda. One could say it’s more the reverse — Wiltshire is moving in the direction of the state of the race.

Many wondered if O’Connell could raise the scratch to compete in a crowded and well-heeled field, but his early success with money last fall and winter raised eyebrows of the “huh, this guy is serious” sort. His campaign manager Marjorie Pomeroy-Wallace tells me that May was their best fundraising month so far because of growing support in business and legal communities alongside an already percolating grassroots base. She predicts they will go up on TV “very soon” with ads that are “memorable.” 

Nashville mayoral candidates, from left: Metro Councilmembers Freddie O'Connell and Sharon Hurt, Jim Gingrich, and Sen. Heidi Campbell. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville mayoral candidates, from left: Metro Councilmembers Freddie O’Connell and Sharon Hurt, Jim Gingrich, and Sen. Heidi Campbell. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The state senators Campbell and Yarbro both had late starts given legal restrictions on fundraising before the legislative session ended. Campbell didn’t enter the race until after April 1, which means she made no first-quarter disclosure. Her campaign manager Cyrus Shick tells me they have raised almost $250,000 with no candidate self-funding, “plan to go on television at some point in the next few weeks,” and are building out a field organization that has knocked 6,000 doors. Yarbro’s campaign manager Brian Cordova didn’t share any new numbers but calls their fundraising “strong” with an “outpouring of support from across the community.” Cordova points to forthcoming endorsements and says they have been shooting ads in recent days and will go up on the air “shortly after.”

With head starts on name recognition, Campbell, O’Connell and Yarbro can probably make do with a smaller TV buy than their well-funded but (initially) lesser known opponents. Until we see actual financial disclosures for the second quarter in July we can’t know for sure but it appears each has the cash to compete. That’s where the campaign management test comes in: these are campaigns without resource slack that will be making tough and consequential choices about how, where, and when to spend precious dollars in the race’s closing weeks.

Nashville mayoral candidate Jim Gingrich. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville mayoral candidate Jim Gingrich. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A big question mark from the outset has been whether Hurt can build the kind of campaign needed to translate her wide community and Metro Council experience and message of leadership and optimism into viable contention in a crowded field. She started out respectably on the money front, raising over $110,000 in the first quarter. 

Asked about Q2 activity and fundraising, campaign manager Quinne Welter told me “We’re running an aggressive campaign” and predicted “we will have the resources we need to communicate Sharon’s message.” The use of the future tense there is perhaps less than ideal, implying as it does that they might not have the resources they need now. The Hurt campaign boasts of “many volunteers excited about Sharon’s vision” but it isn’t clear that there is an active field program in place. Sharon Hurt the candidate is a force of nature, but is her campaign able to be one as well?

The Gingrich campaign is a curious nut to crack. He has certainly improved as a candidate — I thought he made his best showing to date at Monday’s Fox 17 debate — and he is outspending the field on TV, with a relentless (and mostly self-financed) onslaught of air and cable ads since mid-April totaling more than $850,000. But the two early June polls I mentioned at the outset landed him only in low-mid single digits.

Asked about a large ad spend that seems to be barely moving the needle, campaign manager Emily Cupples said their own numbers (which she declined to share despite my warm invitation to do so) “suggest Jim is making significant progress increasing his name ID and vote share.” Well, maybe, but without data who knows. And it is hard not to read a bit of disquiet into their recent addition of big shot DC media consultant Mark Putnam to the team (Putnam made a memorably unfortunate trash collection ad for Linda Rebrovick’s ill-fated 2015 Nashville mayoral bid). 

Alice Rolli. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Alice Rolli. (Photo: John Partipilo)

I don’t get much of a vigorous campaign infrastructure vibe from the Wilhoite and Rolli camps. Asked about fundraising progress, media intentions, and field program development, Wilhoite campaign manager Kevin Teets would say only that they “continue to raise money to reach voters in all ways possible.” Rolli’s campaign manager Casey Newcomer was similarly terse: “We are executing our campaign plan to engage voters and share Alice’s message.” When I asked why Rolli has chosen to skip some recent forums, Newcomer replied that “Alice isn’t working on perfect attendance at forums—she’s working on meeting voters and to do that she has prioritized community meetings and events.” 

Perhaps these two campaigns have more going on than they are letting on, though at this late stage a campaign that doesn’t feel energetic and robust on multiple fronts probably isn’t. Having said that, both candidates are interesting alternatives in the race and I’d like to be proven wrong about the viability of their bids.

So with four weeks until voting starts and seven weeks until the votes are counted, most remain in contention for the two runoff spots. The candidates themselves are the thing, but personally I’m a believer in the political nostrum that campaigns matter. At this point in the race the emphasis takes its inevitable turn from building a brand to finding your voters. 

One of the campaign managers I spoke with boasted of their ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. For the next seven weeks the campaigns that make the runoff in this excruciatingly tight race will have to walk and chew gum, sure, and also make dinner, feed the dog, do an oil change, and transplant a kidney, all at once, every day. It’s all hands on deck. As Leo Durocher famously said, “Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain.”


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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.