Bucking a GOP Trend
House Democrats always hang tough
by Frank Cagle
Tennessee has been swinging toward Republicanism for more than a decade. The state has elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and the governor’s office. The state went for George Bush over homeboy Al Gore. The Republicans actually won a majority of the seats in the state Senate last election.
Two questions for your consideration: Why has the state House of Representatives remained in the hands of the Democrats for virtually all of the last century? Is there any prospect of a Republican majority in the state House over the next two election cycles?
Despite the trend toward more Republicans in Tennessee, the Democrats, as the party in power, have been able to blunt Republican gains in the House. The Republicans would have, most likely, taken control of the House in 1994. But after the 1990 census, the Democrats redrew district lines, putting six Republicans in three districts, thus eliminating three Republican members.
After the 2000 census, the redistricting in 2002 stayed pretty much with the status quo. Incumbents were under siege from the public over budget battles, deficits and a proposed state income tax. It was not a time to upset any apple carts within the chamber. As a result, rather than lose seats in a redistricting, the Republicans have been picking up seats.
The Democrats are also finding it harder to find “safe” Democratic seats. They have had to concentrate reliable Democratic voters in order to protect incumbent Democrats. Conservative Republican voters from Shelby County are moving to suburbs in traditional West Tennessee Democratic counties. Democratic districts are shifting farther out into the country.
The growth of Republican suburbs around Memphis and Nashville has helped the Republicans to steadily increase their numbers. The demographic trend would lead you to believe that a Republican takeover of the House should be just a matter of time.
There is another factor, however, which may detour the Republican march to power. What the Republicans have to avoid is a large number of members quitting at the next election. Incumbents have an advantage in an election. If there are many more Republicans quitting than Democrats, it puts more Republican seats in play. It also ties up the state party and Republican fund-raising to be keeping those seats instead of concentrating on taking new ones.
Why might more Republicans quit? I think it has always been so. If you add up the Black Caucus, where longevity is the rule, and all the leadership positions the Democrats hold, it makes for a fairly stable core. The people in charge are less likely to quit.
Many Republican members get frustrated by being out of power. They go to the Legislature with high ideals and an agenda. They soon learn that they will, more often than not, be shut out of major decisions. Republican members are often small business people or professionals who never intended to make careers out of legislative service. After two or three terms they find the demands of service in conflict with their businesses and family lives. That is certainly true of some Democrats as well, but having a committee chair or an ability to influence legislation causes them less frustration.
Some of the more ambitious House Republicans deal with their frustration by moving over to the Senate, where Republicans have been able to have more of an impact and have more power. (Tim Burchett, Jamie Woodson Mike Williams, for example.)
There are also a lot of House members who may quit next time because of recent events. Some of them are very uncomfortable to be viewed as a member of a body their friends and neighbors think is ethically challenged. It is also very likely that a special session on ethics will come up with enough financial disclosure to make some members wonder if it is worth it to continue.
Some of them may see the election of state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, as Minority Leader as a signal that partisanship is on the rise and they are in the wrong boat.
In one sense, turnover in the General Assembly is a good thing. It brings in new ideas and new energy. But if turnover only happens among the younger members and never happens at the top, you tend to get the same thing you’ve always had: special-interest control, a predisposition to oppose reform and an air of entitlement.
The challenge for Dunn and the state Republican Party is to convince Republican House members to hang on a little longer, run for re-election, and help pick up enough seats to get control.
The Democrats will not go gently into that good night. It’s why they’ve had control (except for one brief period too boring to explain) since Reconstruction.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .