Whither the Democrats?

Is it possible for state Democrats to avoid a Republican tsunami this fall?

I guess you can't blame Tennessee Democrats for being depressed. They lost the Legislature in 2008 and if the Republicans hold or gain a few more seats they will be in charge of redistricting next year—redrawing all the congressional and legislative lines to suit themselves.

They are also losing Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, after eight years in office, and all the pundits say it's a Republican year.

But is there any hope?

Well.... maybe. The smart money has the Republicans holding the House and Senate and picking up the governor's office. But if you take a contrariwise view (as I often do) can you make a case? Let's put on our rose-colored glasses and see if we can find hope for the Democrats.

Firstly, the Democrats should never underestimate the ability of the Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot. It's how Democrats retained control of the Legislature about 20 years past their due date. Let's recall opening day last year for a ceremony to inaugurate Republican Jason Mumpower as Speaker of the House. Oops.

Secondly, Tennessee is often contrary. You will recall the state was carried by George Bush over semi-native son Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. After twice voting for Bill Clinton. And while America was electing Democratic President Barack Obama, Tennessee was rolling up a huge victory for John McCain. This fall it is widely predicted that the Democrats nationwide will lose congressional seats to the Republicans by a big majority. But in Tennessee, Obama won't be on the ballot this time around.

Many of the House seats the Republicans captured in 2008 were narrow victories in traditionally Democratic districts where voters went for McCain. Also, in several of the districts you had longtime Democratic incumbents who decided not to seek re-election—like Frank Buck and Randy Rinks, whose seats were taken by Republicans. It is entirely possible that in many of these seats in Middle and West Tennessee, the voters might go home to the Democrats.

Thirdly, the Republican gubernatorial candidates are involved in a hard-fought primary with some bad feeling on each side. I really don't think any of the Republican candidates' supporters will be so upset by a loss that they will vote for a Democrat. But you can make the argument that in some areas of the state, like upper East Tennessee, Ned McWherter is still much beloved. They voted for McWherter twice and in many of the counties they also voted for Phil Bredesen. No Republican has ever been elected governor without a good margin in upper East Tennessee.

It is not unreasonable that Mike McWherter could appeal to some conservative voters and some gun voters in Upper East Tennessee if the Republican nominee is Bill Haslam. There are also some Republicans who are not thrilled by the Bible-thumping Zach Wamp, and should he win the primary there could be independents and moderate Republicans who would find McWherter appealing. It may depend on how much of his own money McWherter is willing to spend. The deep-pocket contributors are backing Republicans.

You have two Democratic U.S. Representatives who have retired, usually a time for the opposition party to take a seat. But state Sen. Roy Herron is a formidable Democratic candidate in John Tanner's old seat and may be able to keep it in his party's hands. West Tennessee is still Democratic at the courthouse level and the Republicans have what seems like a dozen candidates bashing each other in a primary. Bart Gordon's seat, in Middle Tennessee is more of a problem for the Democrats. Nashville suburban counties have been trending Republican. Gordon would have had a fight to hold the seat even with incumbency.

But the Democrats may be able to keep one of the two possible losses.

It's an uphill, underfunded effort for the Democrats, but it is possible for them to regain control of the state House. That gives them a seat at the table for redistricting and puts them back in charge of the Speaker's office and committee chairs.

It's a long shot, but its doable.

A McWherter win? Not so doable.


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