Surgical precision: how Senate power Jim Sasser was stomped by a political novice in Tennessee

David Beiler

There is no better symbol of Middle America than Nashville, Tennessee: home of our original populist icon, Andrew Jackson; capital of country music, the core of working class culture; setting for Robert Altman’s 1974 cinematic landmark of the same name, a sobering depiction of the decayed condition of the American Dream. Twenty years later it was the backdrop for another rude awakening: the destruction of the old politics of chit-collecting at the hands of the new wave twin terrors of mega-monied media campaigns and popular revulsion for the political elite.

Jim Sasser and Bill Frist both call Nashville home, but there the similarity ends. Sasser grew up in the cotton country of rural West Tennessee, the son of a USDA agent who combed the backroads, teaching ill-educated farmers agricultural techniques that might deliver them from an impoverished existence. William Harrison Frist grew up on toney Bowling Avenue in Nashville, the son of a spectacularly successful doctor who later revolutionized medical marketing.

Prince of Privilege

In 1968 – when Frist was a sophomore in high school – his father (Thomas, Sr.) and older brother (Tommy) joined forces with entrepreneur Jack Massey to form Hospital Corporation of America, the first for-profit hospital chain. The business soon grew to fantastic lengths, twice merging with its leading competitor at the time. Today, the Frists are worth over half a billion dollars, making them one of the most powerful families in the country.

Arriving at maturity much later than Tommy and possessing a mindset more attuned to medicine than marketing, Bill is the church mouse Frist, having amassed a personal fortune of only $20 million. He made his initial marks as a premier heart surgeon and director of Vanderbilt University’s Transplant Center. There he spearheaded a 1990 grass-roots drive to attach an organ donor card to Tennessee drivers licenses.

Mindful of this background, Democratic Gov. Ned Ray McWherter tapped Bill to head the Tennessee Medicaid Task Force in 1992. The position had potential for being a powerful, high-profile vehicle, as the commission would be charged with revamping the state’s public health care system. But the Frist appointment seemed politically safe: he had only lately shown any interest in politics, and his family had contributed heavily to Democratic candidates, as well as Republicans.

The Task Force ultimately crafted an innovative Medicaid blueprint that promised to streamline costs through competition, winning plaudits from the press for providing a beacon for other states. With Congress about to take a shot at fundamentally altering the nation’s entire health care infrastructure, Frist suddenly felt the call of the campaign trail.

In April, 1993 “he came out from having just done a heart transplant, still in his scrubs,” recalls pollster Whir Ayres, “and indicated he was seriously considering running for the Senate. That shocked me.” The Atlanta-based Ayres had been summoned to meet the 41-year-old surgeon through a contact from his religious work, a parishoner – like Frist, presidential candidate Lamar Alexander and most of Nashville’s elite – of Westminster Presbyterian Church. After continued consultations, Ayres conducted an exploratory benchmark survey for Frist that August. It indicated that Sasser was beatable by virtue of his liberal Senate votes that were not well-known to voters.

“We had a Candidate A vs. Candidate B comparison that had objective descriptions of the two men,” Ayres explains, “and Candidate A (Bill Frist) beat Candidate B (Jim sasser) by 50 to 40…. Although Sasser was not unpopular at the time, it was apparent he had taken several positions that were wildly at odors with most Tennessee voters.”

The Real Albert Gore

Sasser seemed to be emulating his erstwhile employer and mentor, Sen. Albert Gore, St. A New Deal liberal in the House, Gore had gone on to the Senate in the 1950s, where he supported civil rights legislation and opposed the Vietnam War, much to tile chagrin of his constituency. It appeared to many of them that Gore was more concerned with impressing the salons of Georgetown than representing the views of the Volunteer State. He was finally brought down after 18 years in the upper chamber by Bill Brock, conservative scion to a candy fortune.

The lessons of that defeat were seared into the mind of the old Senator’s son, who – like Sasser – was sent to Congress in 1976. Albert Gore, Jr. quickly became identified with the hundreds of town meetings he held back home in the Fourth District. Gore the Younger developed a keen media sense and tackled issues off the beaten track which aroused much interest and little opposition.

Even after young Al Gore were to the Senate in 1985, Sasser continued to be the more reminiscent of Gore, Sr. He became a resolute dove on foreign policy and lead the fight against aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. As chairman of the powerful Budget Committee, he continued to protect social spending against enormous pressures to lessen the deficit; while defending affirmative action, he opposed renewing the patent of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group founded in Nashville. On balance, Al Gore’s record was at least as liberal as Sasser’s, but the junior senator had taken care to innoculate against perceptions he was a creature of the Washington counter-culture.

Sasser’s liberal proclivities had put him in the GOP’s gunsights before. In 1982 he was challenged by five-term Cong. Robin Beard (R), a young, lectern-pounding New Rightist who ran a strident, clumsily negative campaign in a Democratic year and got buried in a 22-point landslide. That convincing win dissuaded any viable Republican from taking Sasser on in 1988, and his attentions seemed to focus more firmly on Washington and the national stage.

That orientation intensified in the Spring of 1994, following the retirement announcement of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME). Sasser declared his candidacy for the post on April 22, and the contest soon narrowed down to the three-term Tennessean and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD). Sasser was given the early edge in the contest. From then until the August 4 primary, Sasser lieutenants considered “the election” to be the one coming up in Washington, not Tennessee. GOP strategist Bill Lacy – running the concurrent Senate campaign of actor/attorney Fred Thompson for the remaining two years of Al Gore’s old term – shared an office building with the Sasser operation in Nashville:

“I’d ride the elevator down with these guys almost every day,” he recalls, “and I was amazed that they would always be talking about the race for Senate Majority Leader and what they would be doing after Sasser won it. They were all put out by the fact they had to be out in the sticks holding hands with the yokels instead of back in Washington, where the real action was.”

Amateur Hour

In recognition of Sasser’s vaunted reputation, no political heavyweights dared enter the race against him. It drew instead a motley “six-pack” of unknowns: a doctor (Frist), a builder, a dentist, a professor, a preacher/banker; only Shelby County (Memphis) Assessor Harold Sterling had any political experience, and he had lost the 1978 gubernatorial primary by a 6:1 margin. All six had enough funds to mount a campaign, but it would soon become clear only two would be spending their way to high visibility: Frist and wealthy Chattanooga developer Bob Corker.

All the novice activity puzzled the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, which couldn’t understand why so many credible people could have the notion of beating “one of the state’s most popular politicians…Reality will set in for these inexperienced candidates….(They) will come to realize that Sasser-the-Senator is something akin to a battleship. He’s an easy target to shoot at, but nearly impossible to sink.”

Corker took the traditional approach to Tennessee politics, throwing free barbecues and amassing endorsements from politicians and newspapers. He hammered away at Frist with TV ads that slammed the surgeon on a number of personal fronts:

* A housing project that “left the taxpayers with a bill of almost $8 million” while Frist and his fellow investors “wrote their losses off” and “escaped further financial liability.”

* Frist’s failure to even vote until 1988 (at age 36), a fact that added resonance to the charge he was in the race mostly to protect his family’s financial empire in the health care debate.

* Revelations in Transplant – Frist’s 1989 autobiography – that the budding physician had regularly prowled Humane Society facilities while in med school, collecting cats for experiments.

That last charge was a narrowly dodged bullet, says one campaign pro who assisted Frist. “Thank God he wasn’t experimenting with dogs. That would have killed him in coon-hunting Tennessee.”

As it was, the Frist campaign succeeded in all but ignoring Corker’s charges, focusing its fire on Sasser while extolling the candidate’s record as a lifesaving stalwart citizen. It broke many other rules as well: dropping 3 million pieces of direct mail in a state where such contact is rarely used in statewide races, targeting all voters in this crossover state (not just Republican areas), and refusing to court the “powers-that-be.”

“[Corker] had all the newspaper endorsements, the entire Republican establishment in Tennessee; the whole party structure was hustling for him,” recounts Frist manager Tom Perdue. “But he didn’t have the people. Frist was perceptive enough – even as a newcomer – to understand that the party structures don’t control an election, people do.”

The Georgia consultant behind Paul Coverdell’s 1992 U.S. Senate upset over liberal incumbent Wyche Fowler (D-GA), Perdue writes his own book of tactics. It made for a surprisingly effective tandem with a candidate who is about as apolitical as they come: candid to the point of being rudely blunt, and regularly venting his anger, whether tape is rolling or not. A man whose perceptions are not clouded by affectation or ego, a rarity in politics.

“It was an amazing thing to watch,” says Chris Mottola, Frist’s media producer for the general election campaign. “This guy knew when public opinion was shifting before the pollsters did. When he sensed something was not going well, he said so; and he was nearly always right.”

“I am a good diagnostician,” Frist himself explains. “For the past 20 years I’ve spent every day reading people who come through my door with a complaint. Sometimes they can verbalize it, sometimes they can’t. I observe, I listen, then I diagnose, based on intuition, facts and knowledge.”

It was all too much for Corker. Though he had the support of every major newspaper and most of the influential Republican officeholders in the state while matching Frist’s spending almost dollar-for-dollar, the builder could not match the heart surgeon’s appeal or ability to read the public pulse. Frist bested him in the Aug. 4 primary, 44-32 percent.

Under the Knife

Despite Frist’s primary win, most “experts” were slow to recognize him as more than a low hurdle along Jim Sasser’s procession to serious Washington power. Conventional wisdom held that Republican resources – already spread thin from races for governor and the other Senate seat – had been largely expended in the primary. Frist’s enormous personal resources were seemingly overlooked.

“Sasser’s staff…..hired a lot of consultants and had no focus to their campaign,” explains Perdue. “They could see jobs opening up and their power being extended should he become majority leader. They became preoccupied with intramural politics and underestimated Frist because he was a novice….underestimated his determination to put his money where his mouth was.”

Perdue also scoffs at the idea Frist had let Corker define his hitherto unknown persona in a negative light, claiming the primary battle had actually proven beneficial to Frist: “[Corker] went so overboard with those issues in the primary,” he insists, “they became yawners in the general.”

A massive media flight through September extolled Frist’s near-deified experiences as a life-giver, using testimonials from patients and celebrities such as country crooner Crystal Gayle to portray a man of strength, a non-politician roused to action by moral decline and irresponsible government. Although Frist’s brother had hosted a fundraiser for Sasser early in the six-year cycle, the incumbent Senator was firmly in the crosshairs of his insurgent campaign.

“I ran against Sasser rather than for the open seat because I knew that – regardless of how I did as a senator – I would have accomplished something by defeating someone who was leading the country in the wrong direction,” Frist professes. “That assured I would have immediate impact, and made it worthwhile for me to give up the opportunity to save more lives through transplants.”


After several years as a dormant force, the Tennessee Republican Party suddenly enjoyed its greatest success on Election Night, ’94. They took all three mega-offices: the governorship and both Senate seats, all by convincing margins. Frist garnered 56 percent of the vote, beating Sasser by 13 percentage points. But throughout a historic evening filled with pageantry, one haunting image will endure in the minds of all who witnessed it: the stunned, pained visage of Sen. James R. Sasser, frozen in the shock of repudiation by his own, on what was to have been his threshold of greatness.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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