"I'm a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, gospel-preaching country boy," says Roy Herron, 57, one of the two candidates running for Tennessee's 8th District House seat. At first glance, voters wouldn't necessarily know that Herron is the Democrat the word doesn't appear on the home page of his campaign website. In the race to replace retiring 11-term Democratic Representative John Tanner, Herron and his Republican opponent, farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher, 37, have focused less on policies or partisan labels than on personal character.
The largely rural 8th District, which spans cities such as Jackson and Covington in the northwest corner of the Volunteer State, has reliably voted Republican in recent presidential elections. But Tanner, one of the founders of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, built his own stronghold there, and his party would like nothing more than to continue his dominance. "The Dems rightly perceive that if they lose this district, they're done," says Joshua Clinton, an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "It's going to be very hard for them to retake it from the Republicans."
In any other election cycle, Herron, currently serving his fourth term as a state senator, would be a natural choice to replace Tanner. He is, by his own description, a conservative Democrat a Tennessee Democrat, as he likes to say a former Methodist minister and a lifelong hunter. He was even endorsed by the NRA in early October. "I'd like to be endorsed by the Pope, but I'd rather have the endorsement of the NRA in this district," he quips.
As much as Herron talks (and writes he's authored three books) about his rural and religious roots, Fincher has been equally vocal about his farming background and status as a Washington outsider. His ads and mailers pledge to stop President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and repeal the President's health care reform legislation. "My opponent wants to run against a woman from California or an African American from Chicago, but he's having to run against a country boy from Dresden," Herron says.
Fincher knows that, which is why he has at times waged a silent campaign. He's declined to debate Herron and drawn reproach from regional newspapers like the Jackson Sun for ducking the local press. Fincher's campaign did not respond to TIME's requests for an interview.
There's plenty to talk about. Financial allegations surrounding the GOPer's campaign have raised eyebrows. Fincher returned his financial disclosure form listing an annual income of $60,000 with no assets or bank accounts. When his campaign was lent $250,000 by a bank for which Fincher's father sits on the board of directors, Tanner, Herron and local media outlets wondered what was used as collateral for the loan. Fincher responded that the transaction was legal and accused his opponent of waging a "smear" campaign.
Despite being a fresh face on the political scene, Fincher has attracted the support of a host of national Republican players, garnering endorsements from Sarah Palin, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Right to Life. On Oct. 7, Hank Williams Jr. hosted a free concert for him in Paris, Tenn. The National Republican Campaign Committee pumped more than $750,000 into Fincher's campaign before pulling out of the race this week. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled out of the district in mid-October.) And this summer, the GOP hopeful's Republican primary became the most expensive in the country, with six candidates spending close to $5 million. Fincher, the NRCC-backed candidate, won with almost 50% of the vote.
In the end, Fincher's political inexperience may be more asset than liability. An October poll conducted by the Democratic firm Penn, Schoen & Berland showed him with a comfortable 47%-to-37% lead over Herron. "In the 8th District, there's a view that government should be very much restrained," says Clinton. "Fincher, running as a normal person not corrupted by the government that's appealing to a large section of voters."