This summer's primary elections should have been one of those infrequent causes for celebration that almost make life worth living for that subjugated population of Tennesseans known as Democrats. To their delight, the Republican Party seemed about to implode under the weight of its own success. Climaxing cutthroat campaigns all over Tennessee, Republican voters veered even more sharply to the right and threw seven of their own state House representatives out of office as traitors to the conservative cause.
Viva la dingbats! Imagine the revelry at Democratic Party headquarters on election night, beer bottles clinking and fists bumping as Republican incumbents fell one after another. Good times — that is, until someone heard the startling news from the Democrats' primary for U.S. Senate.
As the suddenly deflated party faithful watched in horror, a strange and previously unknown life form named Mark Clayton rose out of the primordial ooze of far-right conspiracy theories and stepped proudly into the spotlight. Democrats of Tennessee, meet your new Senate nominee and de facto leader!
Talk about a buzz kill.
To say that Clayton came with certain deficiencies as a major-party nominee is a vast understatement, as Democrats quickly learned by clicking on the so-called issues page of his campaign website (which hadn't been updated, by the way, since 2008, when he finished fourth in another Democratic U.S. Senate primary).
The encroaching "godless new world order" and the four-football-field wide superhighway that he claimed the federal government was secretly building from Mexico to Canada — those topped Clayton's list of concerns, along with the "Orwellian superstate" and that "bone-crushing prison camp similar to the one Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent," which he thinks FEMA will operate for those unfortunate Americans who make the mistake of speaking out.
On his website, Clayton also writes that former California Gov. Arnold "Schwarzenegger, born in Austria, wants to amend the Constitution so that he can become president and fulfill Hitler's superman scenario." And he believes the Transportation Security Administration is mandating that its screeners grope children inside airport "stranger-danger zones."
As the volunteer vice president of a truly creepy organization named the Public Advocate of the United States, Clayton is an anti-gay, anti-abortion crusader. Public Advocate's socially conservative agenda is so extreme that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group. Clayton calls it a pro-family "love group."
Public Advocate has asked contributors in a fundraising letter to "imagine a world where the police allow homosexual adults to rape young boys in the streets" and compared marriage equality to bestiality through production of a "Man-Donkey Mock Wedding Ceremony." Public Advocate believes the Boy Scouts are under siege from militant gays. Permitting gay men to be Boy Scout leaders, Public Advocate has said, is "the same as being an accessory to the rape of hundreds of boys."
Right about now, you might have Clayton sized up as possibly a bit paranoid, and he did seem a little suspicious during our first conversation, on the phone. Between blasts of manic laughter, he politely suggested a few ground rules for our relationship — all necessary, he said, to avoid his assassination.
"I believe in freedom of the press," he said right off the bat. "I'm not planning to haul journalists into court for libel and slander, but saying things that can get me shot while I'm filling up my gas tank on Dickerson Pike is going too far. That may be dangerous to my mortal health. I'm not asking for sympathy. But I'm not trying to get you killed, so don't try to get me killed.
"I'm not afraid of the press. This is not Sarah Palin talking to Katie Couric," he added a minute later, making certain we were clear on that one last point.
I saw Clayton in action at a meeting of the Humphreys County Tea Party. Disavowed by Democrats, he campaigns wherever he's welcome, which isn't many places. This event was at the fairgrounds outside Waverly on Loretta Lynn Parkway. As the meeting hall filled up, it soon became clear this was Clayton's kind of crowd.
"You've heard about the hollow-point bullets?" one tea partier, a friendly white-haired fellow with a winning smile and twinkling eyes named Preston Gwin, asked me by way of introduction.
He explained that President Obama is distributing 750 million of these bullets to various federal agencies, even the weather service. He read about it on the Internet.
"Why do you think he's doing that?" Gwin asked. When I told him I didn't know, he said he didn't either but he could speculate.
"Hollow-point bullets are only designed to kill people," Gwin said, then sighed and shrugged fatalistically. "It's nerve-racking. But I know this. God's in charge. And God allowed Obama to win the White House. Why? Because God's people turned their backs on God."
On the brighter side, Gwin added as a historical note, his church's prayers shifted Hurricane Katrina east a little bit, "sparing many lives."
Clayton walked through the door a few minutes after the meeting started. Skinny with slicked-down black hair and hillbilly sideburns, he's 35 and single, lives in Whites Creek and lifts furniture for a moving-van line for a job. After shaking hands all around, he gave an animated, forceful little speech, eliciting his most enthusiastic response when he sounded alarms against the homosexual menace.
"Why won't they leave our children alone?" he demanded to know.
When it came time for the audience to ask questions, one of the first ones was the obvious head-scratcher: Why are you a Democrat? He hears that a lot. It's the cue for Clayton, a nonstop talker, to go on his rant against the "far left" policies of state Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester and his allies, who Clayton says are throwing "a playground hissy fit" for gay rights and "abortion on demand" and making a large mistake by not embracing their charismatic Senate nominee.
"We've had a lot of success with Democrat voters who think like we do," Clayton said. "Democrats across Tennessee have spoken. Tennessee Democrats came out to the polls. They knew who they were voting for.
"We literally campaigned like Davy Crockett. We went out and shook voters' hands. We looked them in the eye and said, 'This is what we believe. Would you please join us and vote for us and tell your friends?' And here we are."
In that night's straw poll in Waverly, Clayton won seven of 68 votes. He lost badly to an independent candidate, a firebrand named Shaun Crowell, but did better than the Republican incumbent Sen. Bob Corker, who has been reviled by the tea party ever since he voted for the bank bailout. Only one tea partier voted for Corker.
Analyzing the results, Humphreys County Tea Party chairman Jerry Pangle said Clayton might have been just a tad too weird for his group.
"He's not standard," Pangle said.
Clayton, who has no campaign money, insists he will beat Corker in November. He's even developed a mathematical formula that makes his victory inevitable, or so he reasons. If you add up the number of anticipated total votes and subtract the number of people who hate Corker and make allowances for the tea party and die-hard Democrats, plus a few other things, "it's automatically a 15-point spread even if I'm the underdog with no exposure," Clayton told me.
That's the funny part, he said. He's getting plenty of exposure — and every bit of it thanks to the Democratic Party's disavowal of him.
"I've probably had a million dollars' worth of press coverage," Clayton said.
"Why wouldn't we have a good chance to win?" he continued. "Everybody knows who we are. People are not stupid. People who live in that little Chip Forrester world are the stupid ones. Of course we have the ability to win the election. We've been all over the news every day since the primary."
Clayton is unfazed by claims that he's a lunatic. Defending his fears of imprisonment at the hands of despots, for instance, he asked, "Is it so far-fetched that as a Democrat I'd be concerned about indefinite detention?
"It's safe to say we have people who want to take us down that road where there are a few people in charge and everybody else is losing their freedom."
Clayton demanded to take what he sees as his rightful place leading the Tennessee delegation at the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, N.C. But was he cleared like any other party VIP to enter the convention hall? Of course not. So he asked President Obama to invite him to the convention and give him a speaking slot to address delegates.
Clayton's still waiting to hear back on that one.
"You have to understand who you're talking to," he said. "I drive a truck and move furniture. I come home at night and work until 4 in the morning on this campaign. I've spent the past two weeks putting out fires.
"They're the ones downtown at the party headquarters who should be taking care of all that, getting me credentials for the convention. Instead they're fighting me, spending money pumping out misinformation about me."
Clayton will relish his revenge, oh yes, he will: "This whole thing with Chip Forrester and his crazy talk and all that — it's a joke. He's not going to be in power for very long. We'll take over the counties and then we'll kick him out," he said, with another short burst of that strange laughter.