Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Gordon Ball speaks to reporters on June 13 in Nashville. Ball, a Knoxville attorney, said he plans to spend up to $400,000 of his own money on a statewide television ad campaign starting at the end of the month.
NASHVILLE — For a political party that's sometimes struggled to field just one credible candidate for statewide election, Tennessee Democrats may have an embarrassment of riches in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.
Not just one but two candidates viewed as major players -- Terry Adams and Gordon Ball -- are running for the Democratic nomination in the Aug. 7 primary.
There are similarities: Adams, 43, and Ball, 65, are both attorneys, call Knoxville home and tout their respective hardscrabble starts in life, with Adams noting his father worked at a gas station.
Ball says his father once was a "guest" of the federal government as a convicted moonshiner.
And both claim to be best-suited to tackle incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander or another Republican, should state Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas, or Memphis physician and businessman George Flinn unseat Alexander in the GOP primary.
Both Democrats charge that Alexander has turned sharply right to placate conservative critics. They say he's not done enough for the middle class or veterans, favors abolishing the minimum wage, doesn't support equal pay for women.
The list goes on.
But in line with a 20th-century tradition of bloody ideological civil wars in Democratic primaries, Adams and Ball are reserving plenty of fire for one another.
Adams sees Ball, who earned a national reputation as well as millions of dollars winning class-action lawsuits against major corporations, as yet another wealthy office-seeker, looking to join the likes of Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in a body he believes is already top-heavy with the superrich.
"If you look at what Gordon Ball is talking about from his economic perspective, it's flat tax, balanced-budget-amendment economic policy," Adams said earlier this month. "He wants to give himself a 23 1/2 percent tax cut. He wants to give tax cuts to corporations and the richest people in this country. I don't think that's what is right."
Ball, who recently estimated his net worth at $10 million to $20 million, is planning to fund his primary campaign largely out of his pocket with an expected $300,000 to $400,000 television ad buy he said starts a week from today.
The self-funding gets another shot from Adams, who said voters "can see the differences between myself and Gordon Ball" and "this Senate seat's not for sale." He said he expects to go "toe to toe" with Ball based on campaign contributions.
Adams' backers include three former state Democratic Party chairmen as well as 2010 gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter; one-time Al Gore Jr. fundraiser and businessman Clark Jones, of Savannah; and Olan Mills II, of Chattanooga.
But Ball sees himself as a Democrat who can win and questions whether Adams can.
"I think I'm a common-sense, middle-of-the-road, Phil Bredesen, Ned McWherter kind of Democrat," he said. "My opponent is a progressive, left-wing liberal that I don't think can be elected in this state. I don't think a far-left or a far-right person can be elected in this state."
Adams called that "ridiculous" and "the sort of thing you'd expect to hear out of Lamar or Republicans, not from a Democrat running in a Democratic primary. My values are Tennessee values."
Moreover, Adams said of Ball's support of things such as a flat tax, "those are all Republican issues. ... If he wants to run for the Republican nomination, he's a little bit late. That's probably where he should have run in the first place."
Ball said his values are very much in line with those of most Tennesseans. And he said his nearly four-decade legal career has involved representing ordinary people, like those in a landmark case decades ago against a North Carolina paper mill for polluting the Pigeon Forge River in East Tennessee.
"I don't represent corporations; I don't represent banks," said Ball, who sees himself as an "American Dream" success story. "God has blessed me, and I've represented people probably in over 30 states in the last 40 years. Have I been successful? Have I made money? Yes, but I don't think I'll ever change.
"I am in a unique position," he said. "For almost 40 years I've solved people's problems. That's all I've done."
Ball said he has focused a lot of effort on Shelby County, where he said some 38 percent of Democratic primary voters live. He's got the support of a number of black politicians, including Mayor A C Wharton, as well as seven past Shelby County Democratic Party chairmen.
Another focus is Nashville, where many Democrats live.
He said his ad buy will focus on Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. And Chattanooga?
"I'm not going to run them in Chattanooga," he said, noting that local Democrats account for only about 7 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.
Other candidates in Democrats' Senate primary include Larry Crim and Gary Gene Davis, who have run before without success.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com 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, ...