NASHVILLE — It began last summer with Democrat Sara Kyle saying she was seriously considering challenging Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in his bid for a second term in 2014.
Supporters in August quickly created a draft Sara Kyle political action committee. On Sept. 7 an enthusiastic crowd chanted "Run Sara Run" during the Tennessee Democratic Party's annual fundraiser.
But since mid-September, there's been nary a public peep from Kyle, the one-time chairwoman of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority and member of a once-politically powerful family that includes a former governor, the late Frank Clement.
Democrats say they haven't heard much either from Kyle over the past two months. Her husband, state Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, refers questions to his wife. Repeated efforts by the Times Free Press to contact Sara Kyle were unsuccessful.
With just under 11 months to go until Election Day 2014, some Democrats say it's getting late for Kyle to mount a serious effort against Haslam, a multi-millionaire who commands a formidable fundraising machine.
"My sense is she probably should have started this a couple of months ago if she was going to get in it. And I don't think it's the right time considering her mother's health," Memphis-based political consultant Matt Kuhn, who helped create the Run Sara Run PAC last August and is the group's treasurer, said in a voicemail message.
Kyle's mother is in her 80s and battling pancreatic cancer. Kyle told reporters in September that was one of her considerations in deciding to run. But she also said she planned to meet with groups across the state to sound out support, including financing a campaign.
State Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron said "if Sara chose to run, she'd be a great candidate. She loves people and she's smart, attractive and energetic ... more energy than the Energizer Bunny."
Herron, however, demurred on her current status.
"I'll have to let her speak," he said.
Repeated efforts to reach Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson, a Kyle booster, were unsuccessful. In September, Anderson noted in a news release from the Run Sara Run PAC that with Kyle meeting with groups across the state, she was "doing at this point what Governor Haslam has failed to do for his entire first term -- taking time to sit and listen to real Tennesseans. What she's hearing is that people are worried about the future. Families across the state are telling her that this governor has no clue what kind of challenges they're facing."
Another Kyle booster, state Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Elisa Parker, also quoted in early Run Sara Run PAC news releases, didn't return calls, as well.
Taking on Haslam is expected to be formidable. Last May, the governor seemed to be riding fairly high in voters' affections. A Vanderbilt University poll found he had a 63 percent approval rating among registered voters polled.
Kyle has won statewide office. In 1994, she won a term on the then-publicly elected state Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities. She was the only Democrat to win statewide that year. Republican Gov. Don Sundquist later pushed successfully to get the state Legislature to overhaul the agency, turning it into Tennessee Regulatory Authority and making its positions appointed, not elected.
A former elected Memphis city judge before running for the PSC, Kyle remained on the new TRA until earlier this year when she resigned after Haslam successfully pushed to make directors part time. Having part-time directors is unworkable and doesn't serve the public interest, she said.
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said it's not too late for a candidate to step up, but the current lack of a declared candidate is a "symptom of the problem the Democratic Party has in the state, which is you don't feel you have a very good chance" against an incumbent, he said.
Democrats maintain Haslam is vulnerable and have assailed him on his refusal so far to expand Medicaid to at least 160,000 Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act as well as controversies over contracts with private vendors.
The elephant in the room has been the high-profile legal problems of the Haslam family's company, Pilot Flying J, which is under federal investigation for fraud on fuel rebates to trucking companies. The privately held company is run by the governor's brother, Jimmy Haslam. Just last week, Pilot settled an $85 million civil suit with trucking companies over the issue.
"It's not like there's not ammunition you can throw at him," Oppenheimer said of Haslam. "You don't know how tough the champ is until someone hits him a few times."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...