The primary elections for governor are still months away, but Tennesseans have already gotten a taste of it.
The Republican candidates to follow Governor Bill Haslam have been hitting television sets with some high-profile ads. Experts on political advertising say these first pitches to Tennessee voters are among the most important of the campaign.
This is expected to be the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in Tennessee history. Already, the four candidates for governor and political action committees associated with them have spent more than $633,000 in the Nashville market alone — with tens of thousands more dropped on television stations in other parts of the state.
The first ad of the season came from Franklin businessman Bill Lee, a newcomer to politics. He's better known for the home services company that bears his family name, so in introducing himself to Tennessee voters, Lee tried to link an important moment in his life — the death of his first wife years ago — to that well-known business.
Kent Syler, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, has been showing all this season's spots to students in his political advertising class. So far, that spot from Bill Lee has been their favorite.
"It is beautifully shot and it does an excellent job of telling a story and how his life experience will impact the kind of governor he'll be," Syler said.
Storytelling is essential this early in the campaign, experts say. Voters are only beginning to tune in, and for many, these will be their first impressions of the candidates. That's why Lee's one-minute spot avoids any talk of the issues. Instead, he goes for sentiment.
Less effective, in the experts' opinion, was Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd's first spot. Rather than telling a story, Boyd chooses instead to tick through a series of hot-button issues — abortion, welfare reform, illegal immigration.
Boyd's aim seems to be to reassure conservative voters that he's not too moderate for the Republican nomination, said Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer.
"From a policy point of view, his ad's probably the richest," Geer said. "He's trying to send a pretty clear signal about how he's going to run this race."
A similar approach is taken in the first ad for Beth Harwell, the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Paid for by a PAC associated with Harwell, it features ordinary people holding signs touting her accomplishments, followed by a shot of her with the speaker’s gavel.
The most unusual early ad comes from Diane Black. She spent some $50,000 on a 30-second spot that aired just before the Super Bowl. And rather than mention herself or her campaign, she chose to focus on a single issue — the controversy in the NFL over whether players should be allowed to kneel during the National Anthem.
The Black campaign named the ad "Patriotic," a pretty clear description of what she was aiming for. But Geer feels like it was a wasted opportunity.
"At the end of the day, the people who are going to win this race — whether it be on the Democratic or the Republican side — are going to make the case about why they're going to be the next governor that's going to make a difference in the state," Geer said.
"She's just playing to patriotism, which is totally fine, but it's not the beginning of a compelling narrative frankly."
But Diane Black and Randy Boyd have since started to tell their stories. In recent days, they’ve both released conventional introductory spots that describe their early struggles before making it in business and politics.
The success of their campaigns — and those of the other candidates for governor — may hinge on how well they build on those stories through the election season and connect with Tennessee voters.