KINGSPORT — Campaign donors flocked to a Ridgefields Country Club fund-raiser last Friday night for a likely 2008 Tennessee House candidate whose main challenge is getting voters from his own political party to come home.
Special guests on the fund-raiser invitation looked like a Who’s Who of Northeast Tennessee GOP politics — with U.S. Rep. David Davis, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower, state Rep. Jon Lundberg and former U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins scheduled to attend.
They were there to talk up the exploratory campaign of Colonial Heights Republican Tony Shipley, who is currently on track to take on incumbent Democratic state Rep. Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport in Sullivan County’s 2nd House District.
With the general election nearly a year away, Shipley is already preparing for what could be a contentious political battle because Vaughn has garnered scores of Republican votes in previous elections.
In what is considered to be a district with more than 60 percent of GOP voters, Vaughn was unopposed in his 2006 re-election bid.
Shipley, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and Desert Storm veteran, is out to change that next year.
“It would take an act of God to prevent us at this point,” Shipley said of his anticipated 2008 election bid. “When people are encouraging you to run — and not just one or two but a community, and it’s been going on since 2006 ... having a career of service to the country, it’s hard for me to say no. ... The money and the issues are out there.”
Vaughn, a former Kingsport alderman and insurance agent who’s been in office since 2003, is far from being in a campaign mode right now.
“My job as an elected official is to work to help people and do the things that make a difference for the people I represent. I’ve got to be out there working,” Vaughn said. “I’ve got a whole (legislative) session that is left before campaigning starts for me. I’m going to be out there working for the people. What an opponent does is totally up to him.”
Shipley, who formerly ran his own ambulance service company but now works for a geographic information systems firm, said his campaign will crank up after Tennessee’s Feb. 5, 2008, presidential primary.
“We’re going to keep our powder dry, so to speak, for a bit longer,” he said. “But after the presidential primary and beyond that, it’s time to start talking. ... We’re being deliberate in what we’re doing.”
While Vaughn may not be actively campaigning, he is regularly out talking to people. He’s made visits to schools to talk to kids about government. He went to the much-heralded grand opening of the new Crown Point Food City.
Vaughn is also on the phone often with constituents.
“I had a fellow from Colonial Heights call me, and he said ‘Nate, I’ve heard they are starting a campaign against you. The first thing I’d like to tell you is I’m a Republican ... but I was just trying to figure out — are you quitting?’” Vaughn said. “I said ‘No I’m not quitting. I’m out here working.’ He said ‘I support you because of the things you’ve done to make the lives of the people you represent better, and I’m going to get that word out to my friends.’ ... People don’t want folks campaigning all the time.
“We need to bring some civility to the political process in this country. If we don’t, we are going to tear it apart. ... That’s why I don’t play partisan politics.”
In November 2004, Republican ticket splitters apparently liked Vaughn’s nonpartisan approach. While district voters were picking GOP President George W. Bush over Democratic challenger John Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin, Vaughn lost only one precinct in defeating GOP challenger Neal Kerney by nearly 4,000 votes.
But those within the state and local Republican power structure think Shipley can win next year.
Mumpower, who needs to pick up four House seats to win a GOP majority in the Tennessee House, likes Shipley’s chances, especially if U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket.
“If (Democrats) are supporting her at the local level ... then they are supporting what she believes in,” Mumpower said of Clinton at a Greater Kingsport Republican Women’s luncheon. “I don’t think people in the 2nd District of Kingsport believe that. Your neighbors need to realize that, and you need to help get that word out. The opportunity is here. The time is right.”