Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Republicans won in Tennessee

by guest commentator Mark Rogers

Tuesday’s election results mark the culmination of a gradual shift in political power in Tennessee that began around 1970.  The traditional Democratic Party coalition of urban residents, union members and rural ‘yellow dog’ voters which had withstood 20 years of Republican Governors, a series of popular Republican senators and other challenges seemed to virtually collapse in the face of surging voter anger.

To appreciate the extent of Tuesday’s defeat, it is important to remember that in Tennessee power comes mostly out of the state legislature not the Governor’s Office or from Washington.  Starting in the early 1970s Speakers of the House Ned McWherter and Jimmy Naifeh along with Lt. Governor John Wilder consolidated power in the two chambers of the Legislature in an unprecedented manner.  McWherter and Naifeh both served far longer than any other Speakers of the House while Wilder’s 36 years as Speaker of the Senate and Lt. Governor set a national record.  

By consolidating legislative power in their hands, McWherter, Naifeh and Wilder created a power base that allowed them to control the levers of power despite Republican successes at winning the Governor’s Office.  That, in turn, gave the Democrats access to the vast majority of financial support from lobbyists, which provided the critical resources to continue winning elections.  Control in Nashville also enabled the Democratic machine to use redistricting to prevent Republicans from gaining more seats in the Legislature despite the growing number of Republican voters in the state.

The combination of demographics and a growing disconnect between Tennessee Democrats and the far more liberal national party were always factors in Republican success in congressional and senate elections.  By the early 2000s, the stress on the Tennessee Democrats in state elections was begging to show.   Middle Tennessee, always a Democratic bastion in state races, was trending heavily Republican.  Not just Williamson County but Rutherford, Wilson, Sumner, Maury, Montgomery and other counties all began sending Republicans to Nashville.  Redistricting was no longer able to hide the power of Republican growth. 
The election of Governor Bredesen in 2002 and Ron Ramsey’s accession to the position of Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Senate in 2006 were major blows to the Democratic power structure.  

Bredesen became Governor on the heels of four years of bitter fighting within both parties over the income tax.  The Democrats suffered a number of legislative losses and Speaker Naifeh’s position in the caucus was hurt by his advocacy of the income tax.  Republican gains in the state senate and the growing frailty of Lt. Governor Wilder reduced the strength of the Democratic control of the senate, for years a less partisan body anyway. 

A strong Democratic Governor with limitless funding was able to take more power from the Democratic legislative leadership than a previous Governor would have.  Some of this was simple exhaustion after the bitter income tax years and some was resentment of the Speakers for ever supporting an income tax.  The result was several years where Governor Bredesen was able to mostly dominate the Legislature. 
Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey’s success in 2006 in capturing control of the Senate marked a crucial moment in Tennessee history.  A Republican Senate meant that lobbyists who traditionally only supported Democratic candidates now had to support both sides.  That meant better funded Republicans and less money for Democrats, very damaging to the Democrats since they lacked the ability to raise money from wealthy donors that had been the Republican alternative to lobbyist funds.  

In 2008 the nomination of Barak Obama finally broke Democratic control of the House.  From the Democratic Presidential primary where Clinton crushed Obama by 3 to 1, 4 to 1, 5 to 1 and even greater percentages, it was clear that traditional Democratic voters were unexcited by an Obama candidacy.  In November Republicans netted 4 seats in the House giving them a 50 – 49 margin for the first time since Reconstruction.  Not surprisingly Republican victories correlated with those counties where Clinton handily defeated Obama.  While the Kent Williams flip thwarted true Republican control of the House, the 2008 results were an ominous sign that rural and suburban Democrats had finally broken with the changes in the national party.

Tuesday’s election returns were more than a defeat for Tennessee Democrats.  Incumbents thought to be safe were washed away in a tide unlike anything in Tennessee history.  Open seats previously held by Democrats in areas like Nashville flipped.  A college professor who spent less than $2,000 beat Doug Jackson, a long-serving Senator.  Three congressional seats, all previously considered safe, went Republican.  And, most important for redistricting next year, 13 seats in the state House went Republican. 
Before election day many Democrats were resigned to losing 3 or 4 seats or more.  Republicans projecting more than 6 or 7 wins were seen as overly optimistic.  Journalists who know Tennessee politics intimately were projecting few wins.  

So, what happened?

Factors in the Republican wave include:

  • The Haslam Factor.  From the start, there was an inevitability to the Haslam campaign that sucked any optimism out of the Democrats regarding the Governor’s race.  Haslam perfectly fits into the Howard Baker / Lamar Alexander / Bill Frist / Bob Corker model that has demolished Democrats in election after election.  Add the unlimited fundraising power of his family and the effect was to deter any conventional opponent.  As Haslam’s strength grew across the state and across voter groups, the chance of a strong Democratic turnout that would save down-ticket candidates vanished. 

  • The McWherter Factor.  From the first, I contended McWherter was the one candidate who could rally the Democrats alienated by the leftward trend in the national party.  Unlike Jim Kyle, who represented the liberal wing of Tennessee Democrats, McWherter’s name might reignite the traditional loyalty of those Democrats who abandoned the party in 2008.  As McWherter’s campaign flailed around with attacks on Haslam’s ties to Iran, that ray of hope went out.

  •  The National Factor.  Many of the Democrats losses on Tuesday came in areas dominated by ‘yellow dog’ Democrats.  These are voters who inherit their Democratic voting along with their other genetic traits.  These voters tend to live in counties that are socially and economically conservative but Democratic by birth.  A quick look at past elections will show that for all their conservatism, these counties voted for Mondale over Reagan, Kerry over Bush, Cooper over Thompson and so on.  That these voters not only elected a Republican Congressman but also finally elected Republicans at the state level suggests that the traditional link to the Democratic party has been broken.  
  • The Issue Factor.  Despite the fact that traditional Democrats are usually reliable votes for the conservative position on social or values issues, the position of the national party on abortion, guns, gays and other topics may finally have driven voters into Republican arms.  
  • The Fear Factor.  Parts of Tennessee have been suffering economically for several years before the crash of 2007 -2008.  Rural areas that relied on low-skill industries have been particularly battered by the relocation of plants abroad.  As rural Democratic legislators have lost power, there has been less largess funneled to those areas.  With the national economy lagging, the Republican alternative may be less scary than the Democrats.

  • The Republicans did it Right Factor.  Republican leadership in the House and Senate deserves credit for some excellent candidate recruiting and fundraising.  Recent state party chairs Robin Smith and Chris Devaney also deserve credit for their management of the party and their work in recruiting and fundraising.  Congressional Republicans including Senators Alexander and Corker worked hard for their state counterparts. 
  • The Civil War Factor.  The conflict between the left and center of the Democratic Party has been a serious problem at a time when the Democrats had little margin for error.  The efforts of the TEA to derail Race to the Top legislation, the fight over the job of party chair and a variety of other conflicts hurt Democratic efforts to unite behind candidates and wasted scarce resources. 
With redistricting coming up and no barrier to Republicans drawing lines that will favor them, it seems that the best the Democrats can hope for is holding their House seats although that may be difficult as Republicans target close races like three in Nashville.  The Senate offers Republicans the opportunity to gain two or three more seats.  The Democrats also face a serious problem in that their bench is weak.  Their two Congressmen are not serious threats for statewide office.  Their House and Senate Leadership is older and not likely to consider uphill congressional races.  And the financial support of those lobbyists who once served at their beck and call will now flow to the Republicans who dominate the Hill. 

Mark Rogers is a long-time Republican activist and commentator.  His experiences range from campaign strategy to policy development to speech writing.

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