Tennessee Democrats Stirring?

Republicans in 2010 shouldn't spend all their money in the primary

It has appeared in recent months that the gubernatorial election next year would be decided in the Republican primary. But the state Democrats have been showing signs of life in recent weeks and they may get their act together and make it a real contest.

• Gov. Phil Bredesen has set up a framework to stop the in-fighting between Democratic Party factions—it will enable grassroots organizing to continue and put fund-raising into competent hands. It signals that Bredesen does not plan to ease on out as a lame duck, but will remain involved in the future of his party.

• Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned, has announced he will be a candidate for governor. This provides the Democrats with at least one candidate who has a name recognizable throughout the state and may encourage others to jump in.

• The Democrats have an added incentive in that they must recapture the state House next year so they will be in charge of redistricting after the next census. That could enable them to regain and continue the control they have enjoyed through virtually all of the last century. Democrats organizing and scratching in every House district can only help the top of the ticket.

Bredesen and big donors will handle fund-raising through a structure they will control and, one assumes, spend the money with the best chance of success. This will take pressure off Democratic Party chair Chip Forrester, and should stop the effort to dump him from office. This two-tiered system seems awkward, but it may work. The Nashville Post's A.C. Kleinheider offers the best description—it replaces two mules kicking each other in the barn with a team of horses pulling in the same direction.

The entry of McWherter signals that the Democrats do not intend to concede the race. The field had been occupied by former state Rep. Kim McMillan, who has not been able to raise money, and unknown Nashville businessman Ward Cammack. Congressman Lincoln Davis gave it a pass. Knoxville businessman Doug Horne gave it a pass. It had begun to look like the smart Democratic money would stay at home.

McWherter's entry, and the entry of state Sen. Roy Herron, indicates Democrats are beginning to stir. There may be other Democrats thus emboldened.

Mike McWherter is not expected to be a great campaigner, but his father is a beloved figure around the state and it might be possible to resurrect the remnants of his once-powerful political machine. The McWherter name at least gives the Democrats a flag planted in the field around which to rally. But Ned McWherter left office almost 16 years ago, a lifetime in politics.

Given the current split in the House Republican caucus, the Republicans are in danger of losing the House in 2010. Who will run the Republican campaign effort? House Speaker Kent Williams, who has been thrown out of the party by Chair Robin Smith? Majority Leader Jason Mumpower, who has a smaller base within the caucus than Williams? Or Smith, who may be off running for Congress in 2010? The Democrats need one seat and some of the Republicans barely won in 2008, even with a huge McCain margin at the top of the ticket.

The Republicans could form a study committee this summer and re-district next spring, before the next election. But it would be a bold move, subject to a lot of criticism. It could unite the Republican factions, however, and it would put Williams back in good graces with most Republicans. Given the tenuous hold the Republicans have, it would not appear that they have much to lose.

The Republicans have a strong gubernatorial primary field and still are the best bet to win the governor's office in 2010. But recent Democratic Party stirring means the Republicans should not spend all their money in the primary—they will need to save some for the fall.