Here we go again.
Two years after Tennessee Democrats nominated Mark Clayton, a man with extremely conservative views, to be their next U.S. senator, they've put another colorful character forward to lead the state, a man who probably won't be joining the likes of Ned Ray McWherter and Phil Bredesen in the state party's hall of fame.
That man is Charles V. "Charlie" Brown, the Oakdale retiree who won the Democratic primary for governor Thursday by more than 35,000 votes. Brown, who defeated former Sullivan County Mayor John McKamey and two other candidates, will face Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in the Nov. 4 general election.
Asked Friday why he's running, Brown said, "After what we've been through these last four years, somebody needs to." He said he wants to reverse Haslam's decisions to overhaul teacher tenure and take civil service protections away from other state employees. He also wants to "put the Bible back in school."
But it appears debating policy isn't the only thing Brown, 72, would like to be doing with — or to — Haslam, a former mayor of Knoxville.
"I under stand that the governor has reinstated the electric chair to take care of the prison on death row," he wrote in a letter that he says he sent to almost every newspaper in the state. "After what he has done to my friends in knox county, I would like to strap his butt to the chair and give him about half the jolt."
With comments like that — which Brown repeated in a phone interview — the letter earned national notoriety once reporters and bloggers found it Friday on the website of the Blount County Democratic Party in Maryville.
Brown's nomination reinforces the troubles of the Tennessee Democratic Party, which has a limited "bench" of state-level candidates, none of them willing to take on the wealthy, popular Haslam as he seeks a second term.
State party Chairman Roy Herron, who said he looked forward to learning more about Brown, shrugged off the development Friday morning, saying the party that's out of power usually struggles against a sitting governor.
"Both McWherter and Bredesen swept to overwhelming re-election victories against candidates who didn't give them a serious challenge," Herron said. "For good or for bad, it's the pattern. So it's hardly a surprise."
Brown's primary victory was impressive, given that he misspelled his own first name — "Chrles" — on his campaign Facebook page and reported no fundraising or spending whatsoever through June 30. Until Friday, the one photo on the Facebook page showed Brown crouched on one knee with three catfish spread before him; it was replaced by a photo of a picture of a man and a woman.
"I'm a redneck hillbilly, and I want to put this state first," he volunteered. "I want to put Tennessee up front."
What did Brown have going for him? Did it help that he has a famous last name that was listed first on the primary ballot, an advantage Clayton also had two years ago.
"Sure, you know it did," Brown said.
Less than 24 hours after voters nominated Clayton, a political nobody, for the U.S. Senate in August 2012, the Tennessee Democratic Party disavowed him, saying he was associated with an anti-gay hate group. Nothing of the sort happened to Brown on Friday, but his letter to newspaper editors brought ridicule and disgust from commentators in Tennessee and beyond.
"This is a ginormous embarrassment for the TNDP," wrote Southern Beale, a liberal blogger in Nashville. "Another illiterate clown running on the TNDP ticket. I don't understand why we can't find a decent Democrat for these races. Yes, Bill Haslam will most likely win but for crying out loud, a campaign now lays the groundwork for future races."
But laying groundwork for tomorrow isn't something many candidates want to do if it means being a sacrificial lamb today.
"It's hard to convince a credible candidate to get in the race and take a beating," said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University and former Democratic political operative. "These are competitive people."
'None of the four of us are known'
Herron said he tried to convince either Gordon Ball, who won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, or Terry Adams, who finished a close second, to run for governor instead. Both men were credible candidates — and both decided they'd rather take on Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, as Ball will now do, than Haslam.
That left a gubernatorial field of Brown, McKamey, Kennedy Spellman Johnson and Ron Noonan.
"None of the four of us are known," noted Brown, who said he's voted for Republicans at times.
Herron said he knows and admires McKamey, and he said so publicly during the campaign, but he couldn't endorse him. Instead, the party focused on the Senate race, judicial retention elections, and numerous state and county campaigns.
Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock, a Democrat, said he hopes 2018, when Haslam will leave office, will be better for his party. He thinks Nashville Mayor Karl Dean or Jeff Yarbro, who won the Democratic nomination for a state Senate seat Thursday, could be a strong statewide candidate.
And he believes the message for Democrats should be obvious as they try to get back on their feet.
"Democrats need to communicate to the people of Tennessee that so many of them are voting against their own interests when they vote for Republicans," Braddock said. "They're voting for rich, corporate people who don't care anything about them or their lives. That's the thing to communicate. Someone who can do that is someone who can win."
For now, it looks like the Democratic Party establishment will be silent in the governor's race. To some degree, Brown has probably already said enough.
Reach Michael Cass at 615-259-8838 and on Twitter @tnmetro.