Running off with it?

Most assume it’s Freddie O’Connell’s race to lose, but can he lose?

August 21, 2023 5:01 pm

Nashville mayoral runoff finalists Freddie O’Connell (left) and Alice Rolli (right). (Photo: John Partipilo and Shannon Fontaine for Rolli for Mayor)

In political circles talk of a candidate’s “lane”— a metaphorical claim to an exclusive or dominant hold on some identifiable voter segment—has grown banal almost to the point of cliché. But in a jungle primary with a crowded field, like the first round of voting in Nashville’s mayoral race, lanes do matter. The two who did make the upcoming runoff benefitted from having mostly to themselves the most identifiable lanes in the general election campaign. 

Alice Rolli, who finished second on Aug.  3, charted her path to the runoff through the minds and hearts of Davidson County Republicans. Yes it’s a blue city, but more than a third of it — over 100,000 voters—pulled the lever in 2020 for the Serially Indicted One. Many of them don’t bother to vote in off-year municipal races, so even if we grant that Rolli consolidated what passes for the county’s conservatives, she came nowhere near grabbing a third of the vote in the general election, barely topping 20% and (like her 2015 forerunner and campaign treasurer-Svengali David Fox) grabbing that second runoff spot by a small margin.

Freddie O’Connell, Alice Rolli secure spot in Nashville mayoral runoff

Freddie O’Connell, the top vote getter in the general, bested the field on August 3rd by managing to occupy multiple lanes. A so-called progressive lane was particularly prominent. Rolli aside, most in the race held policy views that one could regard as generally progressive, but O’Connell’s role as a leading lefty voice on Metro Council for the last eight years set him apart on city-specific issues. (Sharon Hurt has a similar run-of-Council résumé but hinged her unsuccessful bid more on leadership than policy.) Alongside a progressive lane, O’Connell had largely to himself what we might call a metro government policy wonk lane. Many voters shopping for a candidate seem to have noticed with approval O’Connell’s deep and unsurpassed acquaintance with how metro government works and with the policy tools available to address the city’s challenges. And once newcomer Jim Gingrich abandoned the race in mid-July, O’Connell also had to himself an anti-Titans-stadium lane — something that may well have resonated with undecided voters across the ideological spectrum.

Given both history and demographics, it is hardly a display of cerebral political punditry to say that heading into the runoff O’Connell has the decided edge. He has the runoff endorsement of multiple first-round opponents whose vote shares top up his to reach a number over 60%. Rolli, on the other hand, has backing from two candidates whose vote total in the general summed to around 1%. O’Connell has endorsements from business leaders, labor unions, teachers, firefighters, and progressive interest groups. Rolli has the county Republican party and the Fraternal Order of Police. 

This imbalance won’t matter so much if Rolli can somehow get a (much) larger share of the county’s Republicans to pay attention to a municipal election. If she were to magically persuade two-thirds of those 2020 Nashville Trump voters to turn out for her she’d win in a landslide. But if she gets just half of those Trump voters to turn out for her — also a very heavy lift — she merely matches David Fox’s 2015 runoff vote total, and loses handily. 

With the clock to the runoff loudly ticking, a time when Rolli urgently needs to tack middleward and expand her base of support, a series of unforced errors has instead managed to make herself look more right-wing than she probably is.

One way Rolli makes a play here is by expanding her base in the runoff, as Fox was somewhat able to in 2015. So far the evidence that she is doing this is elusive. Rolli ran something of a stealth campaign in the general to reach that 20%, targeting her communications to the GOP base. All of her campaign’s TV advertising this summer was on cable, with 100% of the buy on the Fox News Channel with geographic targeting aimed at red parts of the county. She had help from an independent expenditure by wealthy friends who formed a conservative PAC to air pro-Rolli ads on broadcast TV, but the overall size of that spend was modest amidst the barrage of late race advertising by O’Connell, Matt Wiltshire and Jeff Yarbro. 

Two-plus weeks into the runoff campaign, with early voting just days away, Rolli has yet to go back up on TV, and her social media activity is lethargic (only a handful of tweets, or should I say X’s, since the general and not much more on Facebook and Instagram). A glance at FCC filings that foreshadow candidates’ radio and TV ad intentions shows no buy in the works, and there isn’t yet any sign of a runoff PAC spend on her behalf. An email last week to Rolli’s campaign manager asking about plans to go back up on the air went unanswered. If the first campaign was stealth, this one feels like hibernation. 

Rolli’s quest to expand her base was obviously not helped by the revelation last week that her main campaign consultant — a right wing shop out of Nevada — had a sorta kinda tie to the far right white supremacist Proud Boys a couple of years ago. It wasn’t really a direct tie, more like an ill-advised mention, and Rolli quickly told her supporters that she was promptly cutting the firm loose. The consultant involved insisted that he had already quit the campaign, citing strategic differences. 

Alice Rolli, backed by her husband, Michael, prepares for a Sept. 14 runoff election. (Photo: Holly McCall)
Alice Rolli, backed by her husband, Michael, prepares for a Sept. 14 runoff election. (Photo: Holly McCall)

Proudboygate qualifies as a nominee for the mother of unforced campaign errors because the troublesome connection between consultant and fascists was a two-year old story readily discoverable online, raising questions of competence — the extent to which the Rolli campaign vetted their hired guns at the outset. Asked about this, Rolli didn’t help herself when she casually mused, “Should I have probably called a whole bunch of references? Maybe.” The “you can’t fire me, I already quit” fumble also looked amateurish. And all of this came on the heels of another unrelated misstep: Asked by a reporter why she went looking for support to a state GOP executive committee meeting focused on stopping the state legislature’s special session on guns, Rolli feebly replied, “It’s a good question, probably should have thought about it a little bit more.”

So with the clock to the runoff loudly ticking, a time when Rolli urgently needs to tack middleward and expand her base of support, she has instead managed to make herself look more right-wing than she probably is, and appear less competent and prepared in the process. None of it is a good look. Factor in the need to bring on a new campaign media and strategy team at this late stage, and it feels like a campaign gasping for air. 

The O’Connell campaign, meanwhile, appears to have hit the ground running once the general election results were in. His substantial first-round field operation quickly reignited, his social media is popping daily, endorsements are rolling in, and as of a few days ago he is back up on TV with a perky new ad. To judge by his performance at the first few joint runoff forum/debate encounters (three down, five to go), O’Connell is playing it safe, staying on message, and leaving the cross-candidate comparisons and critiques to surrogates. Rolli at these forums also seems to be playing it safe, articulating her views proficiently but saying nothing new. O’Connell isn’t either, but beyond tossing in an occasional centrist platitude as a wink to moderates joining his parade, he arguably doesn’t really need to. She does. 

The WNPT debate devoted to education last Thursday exemplified the state of the race. Both candidates came prepared, brought their A games, and lucidly offered their takes on education in Nashville. A viewer just now tuning in to the race would have come away feeling that we have two diligent thoughtful contenders who both care deeply about education. But O’Connell ran rings around Rolli when it came to specific knowledge of current programs and practices in schools and community, and of the policy levers available. Rolli drew no significant (or even insignificant) contrasts between the two of them. An undecided voter wondering what specifically Rolli offers for education that O’Connell doesn’t come away empty handed. A missed opportunity. 

Unless Rolli’s team has some clever master plan to persuade tens of thousands of Trump voters who couldn’t be bothered with Metro’s general election to be suddenly interested in a low-turnout runoff, she must use remaining forums to draw sharp and compelling contrasts that pull some of the middle her way. O’Connell’s base of support is strong, but many of his likely runoff voters are converts from other candidates. Rolli’s uphill task is to catalyze these voters to think critically about the differences between the two, and motivate them to give her a second look as a legitimate alternative to front-runner Freddie. But she can’t do either if she isn’t actually communicating with them.

There probably aren’t enough persuadables to make a difference, but if O’Connell plays it too safe, or commits a serious misstep of his own, there might be enough to make it interesting. Or maybe Rolli just rolls with the punches and gets shellacked, packs up her now formidable name recognition, and heads off to primary the detestable Andy Ogles next year.


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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.