Mark Clayton, conspiracy theorist and non-campaigner ("Jesus did not have a campaign staff"), won the primary, but the party cut him loose.
WHITES CREEK, TENN. - The Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee has no campaign headquarters, a fundraising drive stuck at $278 and one yard sign.
And with the election just days away, he has not actually put that sign in a yard. Instead, it resides inside candidate Mark Clayton's pickup. "VOTE FOR," the sign says. The rest is hidden by the seats.
"Jesus did not have a campaign staff. And he had the most successful campaign in human history," Clayton said recently, when asked if all this adds up to a winning run against Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Jesus "didn't even have pictures or a website."
This may be America's worst candidate.
Clayton, 36, is a part-time flooring installer, an indulger in conspiracy theories -- and for Democrats here, the living personification of rock bottom. In a state that produced Democratic icons including Andrew Jackson and both Al Gores, the party has fallen so far that it can't even run a good loser.
In Tennessee, Clayton's unlikely run is providing an absurdist coda to a long Democratic disaster. Something like falling down a flight of stairs onto a whoopee cushion.
"It's pretty sad. I mean, when your nomination is not worth having, that's embarrassing," said Will Cheek, a Nashville investor who has been a member of the state Democratic Party's executive committee since 1970. "That would appear to be where we are."
Every election, of course, is crowded with losers: the sacrificial lambs, the one-issue zealots, the novelty name-changers. (Thomas Jefferson, of Kansas, is running for Congress. Santa Claus, of Nevada, is running for president.)
But Clayton stands out. Nobody who has the opportunity he has -- a major-party nomination for the Senate in a nail-biter election in which every Senate race has outsize importance -- has so little chance of taking advantage of it.
He has been a volunteer for Public Advocate of the United States, an organization that was branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay rhetoric.
The state Democratic Party cited this fact in disavowing his candidacy, adding that Clayton probably won because his name was first (alphabetically) on the primary ballot.
The last time Corker ran for Senate, in 2006, Tennessee Democrats nominated Harold Ford Jr., a centrist congressman and the son of a congressman. Ford came within 3 percentage points of becoming the first black man elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction.
After that, things fell apart.
Still, among Democrats there's hope that this is really the bottom. They're encouraged by a new crop of Democratic mayors in the state's big cities. And they're trying to figure out a screening test that will keep people like Clayton off the Democratic ballot in the future.
But it's hard to find a definition of "Democrat" that everyone here likes.
"We have a large segment of our party that's pro-life. ... And you know, a lot of us have guns," said Jim Bilbo, an executive committee member from Cleveland, Tenn. "We're not going to come up with language saying, you know, 'We believe in a woman's right to choose,' and all that stuff."
So, in this election, Democrats have told their voters just to write in a name instead of voting for Clayton. But at this low ebb, they don't have another name to suggest. Just pick somebody, voters are told. Word is, a lot of early voters used "Big Bird."