Ray Blanton emerged from the 1974 primary as the Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee. It had been a contentious primary in with twelve men competing for the nomination. Blanton had barely edged banker Jake Butcher to be the nominee.
The Republicans had their own primary with Nat Winston, Dortch Oldham and Lamar Alexander running to carry the GOP banner in the general election. Winston, a gregarious and capable man, had served in the administration of two Democratic governors, Frank Clement and Buford Ellington. Winston served as Commissioner of Mental Health by appointment of Governor Clement and was reappointed by Governor Ellington. A talented musician and expert banjo player, Nat Winston was also an entertaining speaker. Oldham had become wealthy through publishing and selling Bibles. Lamar Alexander had close ties to Governor Winfield Dunn and Senator Howard Baker. Alexander had helped to run Dunn’s successful 1970 campaign and had worked as an aide to Senator Baker. In fact, Alexander met his wife, Honey while working in Washington, D. C. as the future Mrs. Alexander worked as an aide to Senator John Tower of Texas. Alexander had also managed Howard Baker’s immensely successful 1972 reelection campaign, beating then Congressman Ray Blanton.
Many of Senator Bill Brock’s supporters lined up behind Winston, while backers of Howard Baker and Winfield Dunn lined up behind Alexander. Alexander was outspent by both Oldham and Winston, but managed to win the primary by just under 30,000 votes.
It was clear the Watergate issue would hamper Republicans all across the nation and when Lamar Alexander won the GOP nomination, some newspapers noted his victory with the headline, “Pre-Watergate Nixon Aide Wins Nomination.” Alexander had carefully noted throughout his primary campaign that his serving as a White House aide occurred well before the “Watergate scar.”
Speaking to supporters at his Knoxville headquarters, Alexander said, “We’re going to do the best we can to make every person in Tennessee proud of the political process. We’re going to be positive in our campaign in November.”
When reporters wondered how Alexander felt he would fare against Ray Blanton in the general election, Alexander retorted, “I’ll have to ask Senator Baker’s advice on that.” It was a reference to Baker having crushed Blanton when the former congressman had challenged the senator for reelection in 1972. Democrats were already trying to tie Watergate around Alexander’s neck. The notion the young Alexander bore part of the blame was “just plain dumb” the Republican nominee replied.
Ray Blanton had chortled Lamar Alexander was a mere “choir boy.” “I’m afraid he’s to find there are a lot of ex-choir boys, and relatives of choir boys in this state when the election results are in,” Alexander said.
Blanton’s careful handling of his opponents in the Democratic primary helped Democrats unite for the fall campaign. Democrats were also tired of losing and badly wanted to win back the governorship. Ray Blanton dismissed the idea of debating Alexander and avoided joint appearances. Blanton’s attitude cost him the endorsement of Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. Ray Blanton had arrived at a scheduled appearance in Nashville and was annoyed when he discovered Alexander was there as well. The former congressman demanded that he be allowed to speak first and leave immediately following his remarks. When the meeting organizers were slow to accept Blanton’s demand, he snarled any effort to have him debate his opponent would be “impossible.”
Senator Howard Baker was not impressed by Ray Blanton’s efforts to lead a unified Democratic Party into the general election. “You can unify the Democratic party until you are blue in the face and still get beat,” Baker pointed out.
The senator contended 25% of Tennesseans were Republicans, while a similar number were Democrats with the remainder being independents.
Senator Baker was “disappointed” by Ray Blanton’s persistent effort to link Lamar Alexander to Watergate. “We had trouble getting Ray to talk about the issues in 1972,” Baker said. “I had hoped he would do better this year.”
Showing a tendency to be high-handed that would become worse with the passage of time, Blanton reiterated his refusal to make joint appearances with Alexander. While shaking hands in East Tennessee, Blanton dismissed the idea of debating Alexander.
“Public debate is an old campaign tactic if you’re running behind. I don’t intend to engage in trivialities,” Blanton snapped.
Blanton found he could not entirely avoid appearing on the same stage as Lamar Alexander and the two found themselves appearing at a gathering of the East Tennessee chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, in Knoxville. Alexander used the occasion to call for debates all over Tennessee, causing Blanton to bark, “I’m not going to let my opponent conduct my campaign.”
Rising inflation was an issue and Blanton was critical of the national Republican administration for failing to use congressionally approved price controls, as well as “allowing” interest rate to spiral upwards.
Alexander replied it was unfair to blame the administration when a Democratic congress was solely responsible for “spending us into inflation.”
Lamar Alexander hit Ray Blanton on the latter’s congressional record, calling his opponent a “do-nothing congressman” and said he would do little better as governor. Alexander pointed out Blanton had attended only 33% of congressional sessions during his six years in Washington.
The fallout of the appearance filled Tennessee newspapers for several days.
Clearly irritated by Alexander’s persistence in calling for more debates, Blanton growled, “This fellow, this backroom politician, all he’s ever done is manage someone else’s campaign and for some reason or other he thinks he can manage mine.”
Blanton noted, “I’ve been on the platform with him three times. If all he has to talk about to the people of Tennessee is the word ‘debate’ and all he’s going to do is sling mud, then I rather doubt I will grace the stage with him anymore.”
When asked if he would attend a joint appearance with Alexander in Jackson, sponsored by the daily newspaper, Blanton demurred. “I’m not going to be a party for getting up a forum for mud slinging,” Blanton replied.
Ray Blanton claimed the biggest issue facing the voters of Tennessee was the “bad performance” of the national Republican administration and whether public officials were honest.
As the gubernatorial campaign moved into October, some Democrats were becoming uneasy with Ray Blanton. Promoting himself as “Today’s Democrat for Tennessee’s Future”, Blanton could be affable and genial with voters, but some noticed an unpleasant arrogance. Ray Blanton’s high absenteeism while a member of Congress and lack of sponsoring bills and even bothering to vote for many that were important to Tennessee caused some Democrats to wonder just what kind of governor he would be, if elected. Some Democrats privately wondered if a Blanton administration might not prove to be an embarrassment to their party. Those same Democrats were prescient.
Campaigning in Memphis, Blanton addressed those who said he was running a negative campaign against Lamar Alexander.
“They tell me I’m not supposed to talk about my opponent,” Blanton cried at a rally at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. “They say I’m not supposed to talk about the mess the Republicans have made of things. They say I’m not supposed to talk about inflation.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve had just about as much Republican prosperity as I can stand.” Blanton’s audience responded with cheers and loud applause and he continued to hit at Alexander.
“He’s never held a public office in his life. He’s never been responsible to the taxpayers in his life.
“When he first came back to Tennessee he said he was the President’s right-hand man. When the President got in trouble, he said he was an errand boy,” Blanton chortled. “If he had any real responsibility, he would have been among those indicted, so he was an errand boy. I admit that.”
Blanton closed his remarks, saying, “Well, I’m here to tell you we don’t need an errand boy running for governor.”
Ray Blanton’s campaign for governor was not entirely negative; he championed the idea of separating industry and tourism and promoting both on their own. Still, for the most part, Blanton spoke in glowing generalities.
As the gubernatorial campaign wound down, Blanton made a tour of Tennessee. The swing across the state was billed as Blanton’s “Unity Tour”, which began in Memphis. Joined by John Jay Hooker and former senator Albert Gore at the Tri-Cities Airport, Blanton was greeted by a crowd of more than 200 supporters. Several of his former opponents in the Democratic primary were also on hand.
“I think you’ll see the biggest increase in the Democratic vote in East Tennessee ever in history,” Blanton predicted. “I can’t take all the credit. I’ll have to give some of it to Mr. Dunn.”
Ray Blanton spoke only briefly, but he sounded his populist message once again, telling East Tennesseans that East Tennessee needed a medical school at East Tennessee State University. Blanton excoriated big business, decried prospect layoffs, and castigated the profit made by big oil companies.
“Under Democrats you live better and eat better,” Blanton quipped.
Blanton made one pledge to the crowd. “The day I hold up my hand and take the oath of office is the day every East Tennessean will become a first class citizen, black and white.”
Republican nominee Lamar Alexander tried to find a way to dent the Democratic unity Blanton had so carefully constructed. Still, Alexander confidently predicted he would emerge the winner of the gubernatorial contest with 55% of the vote. Democrats were equally uneasy before Tennesseans began casting their ballots, noting Alexander’s general election campaign had resembled his primary effort; Alexander might have started slowly, but he climbed steadily.
Three weeks before the election, Ray Blanton had jauntily said he would not forecast a margin, concluding that he worried about having to handle a “landslide.” As Election Day approached, Blanton threw caution to the wind and said he expected to get 60% of the vote. Alexander concentrated on getting out the Republican vote, although some members of the GOP grumbled the Republican nominee should have been campaigning in West Tennessee where Blanton was expected to do well. Ray Blanton had cobbled together a coalition of factory workers, blacks, and liberals – – – all traditional Democratic voting blocs – – – stressing his populist message and theme of unity.
Alexander closed the campaign in the company of Republican senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock. Lamar Alexander reminded voters of Blanton’s unspectacular service as a member of Congress while Blanton seemed to be campaigning against incumbent governor Winfield Dunn. Blanton told the voters it was time to put a Democrat back in the statehouse, as that was precisely where a Democrat belonged.
Lamar Alexander had hoped for a cushion of a 100,000 vote majority coming out of East Tennessee. Ray Blanton ran far better in East Tennessee than he had two years previously when he had challenged Senator Howard Baker. Blanton carried both Middle and West Tennessee. Alexander looked appropriately grim the night of the election while a tired, but happy Blanton greeted his supporters.
The Democratic nominee was now the governor-elect. Blanton analyzed his victory, saying, “One would be foolish to say the entire Democratic ticket did not benefit from a general disenchantment with the state of the economy and of our nation’s political morality.”
Blanton concluded his campaign was successful due to the fact “we offered positive programs, visible alternatives and honesty.” The governor-elect bragged that “we had the best organization this state has ever seen. We did a lot for ourselves, too.”
One reporter asked Blanton if his gubernatorial victory was especially sweet, considering that Lamar Alexander had managed Senator Howard Baker’s 1972 reelection campaign, which had buried Blanton under an avalanche of votes. “What do you think?” Blanton retorted.
While Ray Blanton had not won 60% of the vote as he had predicted, he did win with almost 56% of the vote. Lamar Alexander won less than 44% of the vote with the remainder divided amongst several independent candidates. Blanton won by a margin of more than 121,000 votes.
Lamar Alexander explained his own defeat, saying, “I knew there was a trend against Republicans across the country, but I hoped they would not take it out on me.”
Yet they did. Republican candidates all across the country lost, including some well-entrenched incumbents.
So began Ray Blanton’s reign as governor of Tennessee.