For a candidate who had been called just about every name in the book by his own political party, Mark Clayton did awfully well in the state's two biggest cities on Election Day.
Clayton was disavowed by the Tennessee Democratic Party less than 24 hours after winning the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat in August. Party leaders urged voters to write in anyone else's name, and The Washington Post went so far as to suggest last month that the man with the anti-gay views and the conspiracy theories about "FEMA prison camps" might just be "America's worst candidate."
But voters in heavily Democratic Memphis and Nashville didn't necessarily get the memo.
Clayton won Shelby County, home of Memphis, by more than 28,000 votes over Bob Corker, the Republican incumbent. He racked up 105,432 votes in Davidson County, losing to Corker by fewer than 6,000 votes.
Some observers said Clayton, who was working for a moving company at the time of his primary victory, was an unknown quantity to most voters. They said he benefited from Democratic turnout for President Barack Obama, who lost the state to Republican Mitt Romney by 20 percentage points but easily carried Davidson and Shelby counties.
"Don't read anything else into it," said Van Turner, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party for the past three years and an attorney in Memphis. "Shelby County is a yellow-dog Democratic county. We're going to support the Democrat in most instances."
John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said many voters had "never heard of Clayton one way or the other."
Geer said there also were Democrats who couldn't bring themselves to push the button for Corker, "even though he obviously was in some sense probably even more representative of Democratic views than Clayton.
"You have two of the most Democratic counties," Geer said. "It's no surprise."
Clayton's luck ran out in more conservative Hamilton and Knox counties, the homes of Chattanooga - where Corker once served as mayor - and Knoxville, respectively. Corker won Knox County by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. In Hamilton County, he received some 91,000 votes, more than doubling Clayton's 41,541.
Geer also noted that Corker didn't bother to run a vigorous campaign or spend money casting Clayton in an unflattering light, which might have allowed the first-term senator to win re-election with 75 or 80 percent of the statewide vote. He wound up pulling in just under 65 percent and winning 93 of 95 counties, losing just Shelby and Haywood, a rural county in West Tennessee.
But Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics, said Clayton's problems with the Tennessee Democratic Party were covered extensively by the news media, and voters should have known the choice in front of them.
"The ignorance argument is a little difficult," he said.
Party vs. principles
Parham said he saw a similar dynamic play out in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District race. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, an anti-abortion Republican and a physician, was re-elected despite acknowledging having had sex with a former patient - a woman whom he later urged to have an abortion. DesJarlais also didn't deny allegations that he had dated a second patient.
"It appeared to me that a goodly number of Tennesseans appeared more committed to political partisanship than moral principles, as evidenced by their votes for two problematic candidates in different parties," Parham said. "That appears to be at odds with their normal positions.
"The Christian right is more comfortable being partisan than adhering to their moral positions, and the Christian left does the same thing with Clayton."
Unofficial vote totals from Davidson County precincts show Clayton - who couldn't be reached for comment - won about half of them and tied Corker in one, pending a count of provisional ballots. The Democratic candidate swept the ballot boxes in eight of the 35 Metro Council districts, posting big victories in parts of North Nashville, East Nashville and Antioch.
Some of Clayton's margins of victory were massive. He got 2,049 votes to Corker's 209 at New Brick Church Middle School, a nearly 10-to-1 edge. At Ross Elementary School, he got 1,062 votes to Corker's 262. And at Cathedral of Praise Church, he pulled in 2,881 votes to Corker's 493.
Corker more than made up the difference in some West Nashville council districts and other spots. At Belle Meade City Hall, for example, the senator received 1,618 votes to Clayton's 147, an 11-to-1 margin. At Hillsboro Presbyterian Church, he got 2,315 votes to Clayton's 482. And at First Baptist Church of Joelton, he received 1,371 votes to the challenger's 492.
Turner, the Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, said his organization left the Senate race off the materials it sent to voters once the state party said it didn't have a dog in the hunt. But with no single candidate coming to the fore as a viable write-in candidate, "there was no one to steer people towards."
"It was difficult saying, 'Write in the person,' or 'You have multiple candidates you can vote for as alternatives. Choose one,' " Turner said. "It's hard to organize around that."