Aaron Aardvark for Senate

As noted yesterday, Tennessee held its primary elections on August 2, and there’s sorta good news and bad news. On the somewhat positive front, Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black handily beat back a challenge from Lou Ann Zelenick, whose campaign was mainly centered on the incumbent’s alleged lack of zealotry in the Fight Against Shariah Law, which was supposedly threatening the good Christian citizens of middle Tennessee from a mosque just outside the district’s boundaries. Black didn’t exactly represent a profile in courage, proclaiming that she, too, didn’t like tolerating Muslims, but a Zelenick win would have made unfortunate global news.

But whatever respite Republicans obtained from the state’s growing Political Dogpatch image was squandered by Democratic voters, who unwittingly nominated a first class right-wing loony tuner as their candidate for the U.S. Senate. Yes, facing incumbent Sen. Bob Corker will be some obscure dude named Mark Clayton, who won a plurality of the vote in a large field of unknowns via the inestimable advantage of appearing at the top of the ballot thanks to his alphabetically superior surname. Turns out Clayton is an enthusiast for homophobia along with various classic conservative extremist memes, including the “NAFTA Super-Highway” and “FEMA Concentration Camps For Patriots.” The Tennessee Democratic Party quickly disowned Clayton, but the damage to the state ticket is already done.

I’d say the situation provides some empirical evidence relevant to two issues of how states conduct elections. Tennessee is one of the relatively few southern states without a threshold requirement of the percentage of votes needed to secure a party nomination. Requiring runoffs can have pernicious effects, but on the other hand, it’s a good way to avoid deeply embarrassing accidental nominations, as Texas Democrats showed earlier this week by nominating former state senator Paul Sadler for the Senate instead of perennial candidate (sometimes as a Republican) Grady Yarbrough, whose first place finish in the primary seems to have been primarily a matter of voters confusing him with the late liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

As for the alphabetical ballot listing issue, it’s long past time for every state to list non-incumbent candidates randomly. Otherwise Tennessee primary ballots may regularly feature crazy-person candidates with names like Aaron Aardvark, and Democrats may fondly remember the days when they worried Bob Corker’s last opponent, Harold Ford, Jr., was not sufficiently progressive.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.