We often hear calls for term limits for congressmen—incumbency and safe districts have polarized Washington with each party playing to a safe base, making bipartisanship impossible. But do we really have that problem in Tennessee?
There is only one member of the Tennessee delegation that has been in office since before 2003. That would be our own Congressman Jimmy Duncan, who has passed his father in longevity.
In fact, since 2000 there have been 19 people holding a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee. (List below.) The number is deceiving because of various factors, but it does show there has been a lot of turnover in the state’s delegation.
Congressman Marsha Blackburn took office in 2003 after incumbent Congressman Ed Bryant ran for the U.S. Senate. Congressman Jim Cooper also was class of 2003, replacing fellow Democrat Bob Clement, who also ran for the Senate. They are now veterans, with the longest service after Duncan. Congressman Lincoln Davis also was there in 2003, winning a seat given up when Congressman Van Hilleary ran for governor.
Coming across the state, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. ran for the Senate, leaving it open for Congressman Steve Cohen. Congressman John Tanner retired to be replaced by Congressman Stephen Fincher. Congressman Bart Gordon retired to be succeeded by Congresswoman Diane Black.
Congressman Chuck Fleischmann got elected to replace Congressman Zach Wamp, who ran for governor.
But it hasn’t always been open seats. Incumbent Congressman Lincoln Davis was defeated in 2010 by Scott DesJarlais. You could argue that Tanner and Gordon retired because, unlike Davis, they looked at the trend lines and the growth of Republican numbers in the state and bowed to the inevitable.
In the upper East Tennessee district, Congressman Bill Jenkins retired to be succeeded by Congressman David Davis in 2007. But Davis was defeated in the next election by now incumbent Congressman Phil Roe.
Of the 18 people who have served in Congress since 2001 there have been only two who defeated incumbents—DesJarlais over Lincoln Davis and Roe over David Davis. If you count Tanner and Gordon bowing out to avoid a Republican sweep, it comes up to four. The rest of the seats turned over because the incumbent went after higher office. So the number of times an incumbent has lost is not that large; the 19 different House members number may be deceptive, thus undercutting the idea that we don’t need term limits.
But notice the incumbents retiring and being defeated all occurred in the last two election cycles. Have we entered a new era in which seats will turn over more often?
The 3rd District is an important seat for Knox County employment at the energy department facilities in Oak Ridge. Incumbent Congressman Fleischmann is in a spirited race against two credible challengers in the Republican primary. Weston Wamp, son of former Congressman Zach, and Scottie Mayfield. The Mayfield milk name gives the candidate extremely high name recognition for a rookie. The Wamp name has also been on the ballot since 1994. If a congressman loses a seat it is usually after one term, before he/she is entrenched.
In the neighboring 4th District, DesJarlais is being challenged by state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Winchester. Stewart represents seven counties in the congressional district in the state senate. Stewart’s handicap will be his running as a Democrat with President Barack Obama at the top of the ballot.
But the election in the 3rd and 4th will tell us whether the incumbents will settle in for a long run or whether we are entering an era of more turnover in Congress. Incumbent Congressmen in Tennessee will be watching the races with a bit of anxiety.
Except Jimmy Duncan, of course.
(The list since 2000: Harold Ford Jr., Steve Cohen, John Tanner, Stephen Fincher, Ed Bryant, Marsha Blackburn, Bob Clement, Jim Cooper, Bart Gordon, Diane Black, Van Hilleary, Lincoln Davis, Scott DesJarlais, Zach Wamp, Chuck Fleischmann, Jimmy Duncan, Bill Jenkins, David Davis and Phil Roe.)