The shifting winds of political fortune that have been blowing against the Democrats nationally of late are nowhere more pronounced than in Tennessee.
The recent announcements by the state’s two longest-serving Democratic Congressmen, Reps. Bart Gordon and John Tanner, that they won’t seek re-election could well be a harbinger of many more to follow. And it was just such a wave of retirements on the part of veteran House Democrats in 1994, when facing mounting disaffection with then-President Bill Clinton and his agenda, that contributed mightily to a Republican takeover of the House that year.
President Barack Obama’s public approval ratings have now dropped lower than Clinton’s were then, the economy remains in much worse shape, and federal deficits are mushrooming like never before. So a repeat of 1994’s massive swing of 54 House seats from Democrat to Republican hands cannot be ruled out.
While cliched analogies to desertions from a sinking ship don’t do justice to the decisions of two distinguished Tennessee lawmakers to retire, their professed reason—to spend more time their families—doesn’t quite ring true either. At age 60, and as chairman of the House Committee of Science and Technology, Gordon had many more years of influence-wielding to look forward to as long as the Democrats retain control. At age 65, Tanner remains an influential member of the Blue Dog coalition that’s done a lot to moderate the proclivities of the party’s liberal wing.
Neither had faced a serious re-election challenge in more than a decade, and it’s anything but clear that either was destined to be defeated in 2010. But Republican John McCain carried both their districts by a sizable majority in the 2008 presidential election, and an emboldened GOP has been targeting both of them since then.
Given the fact that Tennessee has become one of the reddest of the red states, it’s remarkable that the Democrats have retained a five-to-four majority in the state’s House delegation for as long as they have. Only two of those districts, the 5th in Nashville and the Ninth in Memphis, are considered safely Democratic (while the 1st and 2nd districts in East Tennessee remain Republican strongholds). Perhaps even more so than Gordon’s Middle Tennessee 6th District and Tanner’s West Tennessee 8th District, the sprawling, largely rural 4th District held by Democrat Rep. Lincoln Davis has appeared vulnerable to a challenge. (Davis captured it in 2002 when Republican Van Hilleary vacated the seat to run for governor). But Davis has branded himself as one of the most conservative Democrats and one of the most attentive to constituents.
Still, recent polls suggest that any Democrat in a swing district could be in trouble. Along with the decline in Obama’s job approval rating, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that public disapproval of the job Congress is doing has risen to an all-time high of 75 percent. Even more strikingly, it punctures the conventional wisdom that even when voters are negative towards Congress generally, they still like their own representative.
If Tennessee does start electing more Republicans, I for one can only hope it won’t be more right-wingers like poisonous tea party hostess Marsha Blackburn, whose 7th District stretches from Williamson County westward. Until Gordon announced his retirement, his only declared challenger was another tea party maven, former Rutherford County GOP chairperson Lou Ann Zelenik. Subsequently, however, two Republican state senators who are highly regarded on both sides of the aisle in Nashville, Jim Tracy and Diane Black, have gotten into the race and are now considered the front runners. In the 8th District, party leaders have been grooming a farmer and gospel singer from Frog Jump, Stephen Fincher, and he will be well-funded but his views are not familiar to me. The lone Republican challenger in the 4th District, Jasper physician Scott DesJarlais, is also a political unknown.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and next November’s elections to shift the political wind back more favorably to the Democrats. A resurgent economy that drives down unemployment would provide a big boost to their chances. And I for one would like to think the obstructive negativity of the Congressional Republican leadership will increasingly become a turn-off.
A lot will also depend on the caliber of Democratic candidates for vacant seats. In the 8th District, popular State Sen. Roy Herron has dropped his bid for governor to get into the Congressional race, and he will be formidable. In the 6th District, the Democrat front runner, State Rep. Henry Fincher, boasts that no one else is more pro-gun and pro-life than he. So he may not be out-wedged.
Yet even if the Democrats manage to hold onto their majority of the Tennessee Congressional delegation in the 2010 elections, they aren’t likely to retain it for long thereafter. Assuming Republicans keep their majorities in the State Legislature, as seems probable, they will be doing the decennial redrawing of Congressional districts following the 2010 census. And even ardent Democrats concede that they can do so in ways that will make the 6th District safely Republican—barring a political sea change in the state. The same goes for the 3rd District, which Republican Rep. Zach Wamp is vacating to run for governor and which could be competitive next fall, except for the fact that the Democrats are presently without a candidate.