Written by Joey Garrison, The Tennessean
In the high-dollar game of Republican politics - the kind played on the telephone and at fundraiser dinners at the homes of millionaires - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander recalls seven words its Tennessee players feared the most.
"Ted Welch is holding on line one."
Hearing it meant a few things: One, the recipient would soon be challenged to give a specific sum of money to a Republican candidate. Two, he or she would usually commit to that figure before hanging up. And three, the check would be mailed immediately.
But now, the man who has served as a central thread connecting the characters and campaigns of the now-dominant Tennessee Republican Party is entering a new phase. At 79, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease eight months ago, he is moving from the role of organizer of the party's grandest events to honoree.
As his longtime friend Alexander gears up for a run at a third term in the U.S. Senate, Welch isn't the one making calls to ensure the senator rakes in another $1 million during the next quarter.
Instead, the honorary finance chairman of Alexander's re-election bid (the other being Jim Haslam II, father of embattled Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam and Gov. Bill Haslam) is the subject of the senator's next fundraiser, a "Salute to Ted Welch," set for Tuesday in Williamson County.
"Every other time, he's been organizing," Alexander said, looking back at his numerous campaigns.
Welch, a former door-to-door Bible salesman and master of the fundraising phone call - a not-so-easy task for even the most seasoned politicos - stuck to a pretty simple formula: one call after another, flipping through a Rolodex, as he turned personal and political connections into money.
For more than four decades, Welch has played GOP fundraiser extraordinaire: from Gov. Winfield Dunn's victory in 1970 to Alexander's gubernatorial and Senate triumphs, to the more recent victories of Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker. In between have been Sens. Howard Baker, Bill Brock, Bill Frist and Fred Thompson, and new Republicans at the state level, such as House Speaker Beth Harwell.
He displayed the same fundraising prowess on a national scale as the money man of the South, raising big bucks for the last three Republican presidents, as well as Gov. Mitt Romney during his failed presidential bid.
His love affair with the GOP stemmed from a belief in fiscal conservatism. But the sun has now set on his time as a fundraising giant, a role he played without ever taking a dime for himself.
"I don't know anyone in our national party over the last 40 years who's been more successful as a fundraiser and who has been more unselfish in giving his time and his money to help other people without ever asking for anything in return," Alexander said.
Welch's 1929 Belle Meade mansion greets visitors with a striking red, white and blue painting of a bald eagle. Throughout the house, artifacts trace the political highs: photos of Welch with Ronald Reagan, Welch with both Bushes, Welch with dozens of other familiar GOP icons.
His rise is a self-made story.
The son of teachers at a one-room schoolhouse, he grew up on a farm near tiny Parsons, Tenn., in Decatur County. He attended the University of Tennessee at Martin on a football scholarship, and Indiana University for graduate school.
In his 20s, he cultivated his skills as a salesman at the Southwestern Publishing House (today called Southwestern Advantage), where he sold Bibles on doorsteps all over the country. He outshined his peers, worked his way up the ladder and became the company's executive vice president.
His entry into politics came with Dunn's 1970 election, which saw Republicans capture the governor's office for the first time in 50 years. He became Dunn's commissioner of Finance and Administration, but after one term he returned to the campaign side of politics. By 1979 Welch had become chairman of the National Republican Finance Committee. For the past four decades, his income has come primarily from real estate. He owns properties throughout Nashville, including space atop the Renaissance Nashville Hotel, which houses his office.
Welch is married to Colleen Conway-Welch, longtime dean of Vanderbilt University's school of nursing, a major player in her own field, who is retiring in June after 29 years in that role.
Because of his illness, The Tennessean's request for an interview with Welch was declined by his family and the Alexander campaign. Past comments, and stories from friends, reveal that Republican fundraising for Welch was a voluntary sport.
"Instead of playing golf, I raise money," he told The New York Times in 1995. He explained his success in simple terms: "One is believing in what you do. The other is having the courage to ask for money."
For Republicans seeking statewide office, and even those eyeing the nonpartisan Nashville mayor's office, a trip to see Welch has been a prerequisite.
"If you've ever thought about running for politics in 30 years and you have not gone to have a conversation with Ted, you're not doing it right," said Bryan Kaegi, Alexander's fundraiser and a Welch admirer.
Kaegi - along with his sister, Kim Kaegi, Corker's chief fundraiser - is part of the next generation of Republican fundraisers who fall under the Welch tree. Another is Agnes Warfield, current fundraiser for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a woman called both the "Money Maven" and "The Money Lady."
"Persistence," said Stephen Smith, Alexander's current finance chairman, recounting his mentor's approach. "Most people fail in their jobs because they don't keep trying. He might get 100 straight 'No's,' but he kept making the calls."
Haslam had the Welch sit-down while making the leap from Knoxville mayor to a run at governor. "He was definitely one of the first people I went to see.
"Because there are giving limits, you have to have a lot of donors to make a campaign work," the governor said, citing the more than 18,000 contributions he received during his gubernatorial run, aided by breakfast fundraisers Welch organized. "Most people need to be asked, and most people don't like to ask other people for money. Ted knew it was part of the process."
When Welch left Dunn's administration in 1974, it was to team up with Alexander for his first run at governor. Alexander would lose to Democrat Ray Blanton but capture the seat four years later.
Alexander and Welch eyed the White House in 1995, seeking to introduce the plaid-shirted ex-governor to voters nationwide. Underdogs against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Alexander and Welch attended 250 events that year.
Though Alexander's long-shot presidential campaign fell short, Welch legitimized his campaign. "Everybody knew he could raise a lot of money," he said. "In fact, Bob Dole told his own finance people that Ted Welch was the best fundraiser in the national Republican Party."
Corker, who lost the Senate primary to Frist in 1994 and won his seat 12 years later, said many GOP lawmakers, himself included, wouldn't be in office if not for Welch.
"When you travel around the country and bump into other people that have been involved in the way that he is, almost all of them ask about Ted Welch," he said. "He's really almost a legend."
A match made through fundraising
Fittingly, Welch and Conway-Welch, a marriage of two Nashville heavyweights, met in 1985 because of fundraising.
Conway-Welch had just started her leadership position at Vanderbilt. Needing to kick things off on the development side - "I had never asked for money in my entire life," she recalled - she went to see Welch. He gave to her nursing cause and called back to invite her to dinner.
Three months later, they were married.
She knew Welch was politically active, but not to the degree he was. That became clear on a trip to Washington when she thought she was heading to a small dinner. It turned out to be an outing with 6,500 of his closest friends, she said, at an event Welch had organized. Conway-Welch was soon eating next to President Reagan.
"President Reagan probably heard more about nursing that night than he ever had before," she said with a laugh.
In the years that followed, she recalled, her husband was offered ambassadorships and at least one Cabinet position. He always declined. Now, as Republican forces join together to toast Welch, she too appreciates the moment.
"I think it's wonderful," Conway-Welch said. "I really do. The timing's right, and Ted deserves a lot of credit."