frank_talk (2006-23)

No Revolution Here

Talk of dumping incumbents no factor in Tennessee House races

by Frank Cagle

There is a lot of speculation (wishful thinking?) that the Democrats can recapture the U.S. House this November, due to widespread conservative disaffection over continuing deficits, corruption and the abuse of power.

Well, let’s look around our state for signs of public outrage and a fever to throw the incumbents out. Does anyone doubt that Republican Congressmen Jimmy Duncan, Zach Wamp and Marsha Blackburn will be returned with huge majorities? Democratic Congressmen John Tanner, Jim Cooper and Lincoln Davis should also sail back into office. Does anyone doubt that a Democrat will replace Congressman Harold Ford Jr. in Memphis?

It’s that way all across the United States. Incumbents have name recognition, they have the money and they have drawn their districts to protect themselves and their party. What’s that you say? The state legislatures draw the districts? Well, in Tennessee the congresspeople of both parties negotiate among themselves, draw up the lines, and send them over to the legislature to be ratified. We suspect a congressional delegation having influence over redistricting is not unheard of in other states.

The Republicans captured the House in 1994 because there were a large number of Democrats that retired. The public, angry at things like the House banking scandal, rewarded Republican candidates with open seats. Meanwhile, no Republican incumbent lost. In Tennessee Van Hilleary was able to capture the seat given up by Cooper, who ran for the U.S. Senate, and Wamp captured his seat after Democratic Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd did not seek re-election.

When Hilleary ran for governor, Democratic state Sen. Lincoln Davis got the seat back for the Democrats. He will likely hold it until he gets tired of going to Washington.

There are 13 candidates in the Republican primary to replace Jenkins representing upper East Tennessee, not to mention four Democrats. There are two county mayors, a state representative and former mayors of Johnson City.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable is a former state legislator. He lost to Jenkins because there were several candidates from the Tri-Cities in 1996. This time Venable is the only candidate from Sullivan County, which is the most populous county in the district, containing the towns of Kingsport, Bristol and Blountville. The only question mark about Venable is whether he can raise enough money to be competitive district-wide, though he has had some sucessful fund-raisers lately.

The other Richard in the race is Richard Roberts, who is expected to have plenty of money. He is legal counsel for trucking millionaire Scott Niswonger, in Greeneville. Roberts is expected to have the largest bankroll in the race and will spend heavily on media. His downside is that for the first three months in the race, politicos, who couldn’t remember his name, referred to him as “Niswonger’s guy.”

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters will most likely follow the strategy of former Sevier County District Attorney Al Schmutzer, who ran well in 1996 with a heavy concentration of votes from the lower end of the district. Morristown and Hamblen County have been added to the district. With a good vote in Sevier, Hamblen and his native Cocke County, Waters could garner a plurality in a crowded 13-candidate field. Jenkins won in 1996 helped by a heavy vote in two counties.

State Rep. David Davis, R-Johnson City, is a successful businessman with personal money and a well-respected legislator. His (pardon the expression) ace in the hole is his strong Christian Right credentials. Former state Sen. Jim Holcomb, the Christian Right candidate in 1996, ran second behind Jenkins. Holcomb is Davis’ campaign manager this time around. Davis comes across in person as sincere, but as a candidate he lacks charisma.

Washington County is the second most populous county in the district, but in addition to Davis, candidates there include former Johnson City mayors Vance Cheek and Bill Breeding and current Vice-mayor Phil Roe. (Though Breeding is on the ballot, he has stopped campaigning.) Former assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Smith is also running. The Washington County vote seems likely to be split at least five ways.

The Republicans, with the corruption, the betrayal of their long-held positions on deficits and the size of government, certainly deserve to lose control of Congress. Their latest move, to drag out the Marriage Amendment and then a flag burning amendment, has an air of desperation.

It may be, as in 1994, that the voters will go to the other party given a choice. If all the empty seats go to the Democrats, it may change the balance of power. But the incumbency advantage is such that, as Tennessee demonstrates, we can probably depend on seeing the same old faces next year.  

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