Rural Votes Trump
Ford did well in cities, but Corker got margins in the country
MEMPHIS—Quick takes on the mid-term elections:
•Out in front of the Peabody hotel the morning after the election, Democrats were loading into cabs and limos heading to the airport, some of them hung over from a victory party that turned into a wake. Congressman Harold Ford Jr. moved through the crowd, shaking hands, hugging necks, thanking his supporters and accepting their good wishes. He did not have the air of a man who had suffered a crushing defeat. That’s because he had not. A three percent margin, against a Republican candidate who ran more television spots than any previous Senate candidate in Tennessee, was much better than anyone had dared hope when the race began.
No one believes he won’t be back. At a breakfast post mortem, top campaign managers pointed to a couple of things they thought might have made the difference. The Chattanooga paper publishing a poll the week before the election claiming former Mayor Bob Corker had a double-digit lead. The “shaky” ad claiming Ford favored abortion pills for school children. (They think the “Call me” ad was a wash, the backlash matching the gain.)
I think it is instructive to note the rural counties east of Knoxville all colored red on the map for Corker, as you would expect. What the red doesn’t tell you is Corker’s 60-plus percent margins. In the traditionally Democratic rural counties in west Tennessee, many of those were also colored red. In those counties, which voted heavily for Democrats like Ned McWherter or Phil Bredesen, being a Ford, being African American and being from Memphis was a bridge too far for the candidate.
The Ford campaign tried to get to 125,000 more votes in Memphis than presidential candidate John Kerry got in 2004. They got there. Ford won Knoxville and even Chattanooga, though he lost Knox and Hamilton counties. He carried Nashville. Those numbers early in the evening had the Ford people energized. But the rural vote, when it came, went heavily for Corker. A Republican legislator friend observes that the Republican voters needed to vent for a few months and let the party know how displeased they were with corruption and deficits, but they came home at the end. I think that’s right.
•If the Bush administration is smart (an iffy proposition), it will reach out to the Blue Dog Democrats and work with House Republicans to maintain a majority on critical issues. Tennessee has Democratic congressmen like John Tanner, Lincoln Davis and Jim Cooper who are fiscal conservatives. Our state’s Republican fiscal conservatives like congressmen David Davis, Jimmy Duncan and Marsha Blackburn should reach out to their in-state conservative Democrats and work together. They could be an effective voting bloc for Tennessee, in the unlikely event they can overlook party labels.
•You might not have noticed, but while Democrats and Republicans split in statewide votes last week, the Golden Rule Party was two for two. They re-elected Democratic candidate Bredesen to the governor’s office and Republican former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker to the U.S. Senate. The Golden Rule Party isn’t about being a Democrat or a Republican. It’s about them that have the gold continuing to rule.
•Almost unnoticed in the hoopla last week over the mid-term elections was a referendum passed in Nashville that says the local government cannot raise the current property tax rate without a vote of the people. The Metro Council can no longer set a new and higher tax rate to cover increases in its budget unless the new rate goes on the ballot and is approved by the voters.
The referendum got on the ballot due to the efforts of Tennessee Tax Revolt, which used the Internet, email lists and electronic petitions similar to the effort Knox County’s Gary Sellers used to force a vote on County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s wheel tax increase. The Nashville referendum passed in every precinct but one. It was approved by Democrats, Republicans and independents; it passed in rich neighborhoods, in middle-class neighborhoods and in poor neighborhoods.
The city’s establishment has been horrified at the prospect of this exercise in democracy. There have been scare stories about the effect on the city’s bond rating. But given the 77 percent margin of victory, no politician has stepped forward to challenge the measure in court. Metro Council passed a property tax increase last year and is not expected to propose another one right away. It would be when another increase is proposed that the measure might wind up in court.
What is the horrendous property tax rate in Nashville? The urban tax rate is $4.69 cents per $100 valuation. The comparable rate in Knoxville (as a non-metro government, add city and county rates together) is $6.01.
It the Nashville charter amendment stands, expect this trend to have major repercussions all across the state—far beyond a candidate winning a U.S. Senate.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .