frank_talk (2006-18)

Minority Candidates

We often elect office-holders the majority votes against

by Frank Cagle

If disgraced New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were in Tennessee, he would have been reelected by winning 38 percent of the vote in his recent mayoral election. As it is, in Louisiana, he faces a run-off election with the second-place finisher. Rather than win reelection with more than 60 percent of the voters voting against him, he has to win over 50 percent in a second election. It is likely that second-place finisher Mitch Landrieu will win the office.

That’s the way it is in most Southern states. You don’t win an election if more than 50 percent of the people vote for someone else. It’s a different story in Tennessee.

Ten years ago, with the retirement of Congressman Jimmy Quillen, there were seven or eight candidates to replace him representing the congressional district of Upper East Tennessee. Bill Jenkins, who got most of his vote in two of a dozen counties, was elected with about 20 percent of the vote. In fact, Jenkins had 15,521 votes to second-place finisher Jim Holcomb at 15,201. With 80 percent of the people voting for someone else and leading the second-place finisher by 300 votes, Jenkins went on to represent the district for 10 years.

Jenkins has retired and there are about a dozen people running to replace him. It is doubtful that any one of them will get more than 50 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, which in the First District is tantamount to victory. But they don’t have to. All they have to do is win a plurality of the vote.

This is not to single out Congressman Jenkins, who has had a distinguished career in Tennessee politics, it is just the most glaring example that comes to mind. It is a scenario that plays out all over Tennessee every election. Legislative and County Commission incumbents often have more than one opponent and get reelected with less than 50 percent of the vote. In fact, it is not unknown for an incumbent to get someone else in the race to split the anti-incumbent vote.

In 1986, Speaker of the House Ned McWherter won 42 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary against Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton and Public Service Commissioner Jane Eskind. Eskind got 29 percent of the vote and Fulton 26 percent. The rest of the votes went to minor candidates. McWherter, arguably the most successful governor in modern times, won with 58 percent of the people in the primary voting for someone else.

Robert Penn Warren wrote a classic American novel called All the King’s Men , which was allegedly about Louisiana politics. (It was about much more, and if you haven’t read it you ought to be ashamed of yourself.) But Willie Stark, the tragic antihero of the novel, got his political start when the big-city political machine put him into a governor’s race to pull votes away from the candidate expected to do well with the country vote. Stark, the small town rube, was supposed to be the spoiler who took enough votes away from one candidate so that the big-city candidate could win a plurality.

It was a common scheme back in the days of one-party politics in the South. That’s why most states installed run-off elections. Winning a plurality of the vote might make you the frontrunner, but you had to win the run-off against the second-place finisher to take office. A run-off insures that the winner of the election was selected by a majority of the voters. You avoid a run-off only if you win more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

If you look at the current Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, you have three strong candidates. I don’t think it is likely that any one of them will win more than 50 percent of the vote in winning the primary. Conventional wisdom has it that former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary will “split the base” and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker could win with a plurality of the vote. Assume, for the sake or argument, that Corker gets 40 percent and Hilleary and Bryant split the remaining 60 percent. Coker would be the nominee even though Republican primary voters, by a margin of 60 percent, wanted a more conservative candidate. (That’s a what-if scenario, not a prediction.)

Tennessee has not developed the tradition of holding run-offs in primary elections, and it hardly gets any attention that officeholders are often elected with the majority of the voters voting for someone else. Since the current system tends to reward incumbents, it is unlikely to change.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .