County Elections: The Restoration

Last week's county election puts the Republican machine back in power

Call it the Restoration.

They were whipping it up at the Crowne Plaza on election night as the slate of winning Republican candidates was introduced to loud applause—it looked like old times, the dark specter of February a dim memory.

The short explanation of this county general election is that the traditional Republican voters voted and the Democrats didn't show up.

Randy Tyree got almost 28,000 votes in the February primary, when it appeared there was a permanent revolution in county government. If he had gotten them last Thursday, he would be sheriff. Incumbent Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones only got 25,000 votes this time around, but Tyree dropped to 18,575. It was true across the board: The number of Democrats who voted in February dwindled markedly in last week's election. The Republican numbers also declined from the record February turnout, but not nearly as much.

In an interview, Jones noted that he got 35,000 votes in February and all he could really do in this election was get his people to the polls and hope for the best. If the anti-incumbency wave of February was repeated, he faced an upset. But he got the traditional Republican voting pattern to re-emerge, and Tyree was unable to mobilize the anti-incumbency fervor of February.

For the first time in memory, reeling from incumbent defeats, the Knox County officeholders, led by Jones and Register of Deeds Sherry Witt, put together a unified campaign team. Corey Johns, vice-chair of the county party and an experienced political consultant, was put in charge of the unity effort. Susan Williams helped craft the message, highlighting a new generation of Republican leadership. State Sens. Jamie Woodson and Tim Burchett, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker all recorded telephone messages to help get out the vote.

The Republicans took lists of dependable, frequent Republican voters and did targeted mailings with follow-up phone calls. They tracked early voting names, purged them from the list, then did target mailings and phone calls to those who had not voted.

"We looked at individual voters," says Johns. "We saw that 69 percent of the people in early voting had voted in the Republican primary. We saw the daily totals were less than two years ago—February wasn't happening again. We knew if we got our voters to the polls, we would win. People weren't angry."

Democrats on the ticket in February benefited from a primary race pitting Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Voting in the presidential primary bumped Democratic numbers, and while they were there they voted for local Democrats. The February primary also featured a number of appointed and then removed candidates as a result of term limits, flawed appointments, and the Sunshine lawsuit that threw them out again. There were fewer targets for removal in this race, since many incumbents were already turned out in February.

The Democrats were also hampered by their slate of candidates. Don Daugherty, chair of the Democratic Party of Knox County last year, spent a lot of time trying to recruit quality candidates for the 2008 election season.

"We have to do a better job of recruiting candidates," says Daugherty. "Tyree hasn't won a race since 1982. (Register of Deeds candidate) Scott Emge had already lost a race. (Robert) Bratton and Amy Vandergriff had some baggage. We just didn't have a good slate of candidates."

Bratton, a candidate for Trustee, has a sexual harassment complaint in his background. Vandergriff, already under-funded and an underdog, had an abusive husband attack her and a male companion in a restaurant parking lot. Her husband then produced embarrassing conversations on tape. Emge, described in news stories as a house painter, was almost invisible during the race. Andrew Graybeal, the Democrat running for property assessor, was a political neophyte and came off a little flaky.

"Democrats have a countywide base of 35-40 percent. In order to win, a Democrat has to attract some independents and Republicans to get over 50 percent," says Daugherty. "The key is money and time. The hero (on) election night was Finbarr Saunders. He got them out, he got Republican voters. He was flat-out strong. He did what a Democrat has to do to win.

"But countywide, we were destroyed by 20 and 30 percentage points. For Democrats to win, we have to have a huge turnout. If traditional voters vote, the Republicans have the edge."

Saunders won a commission seat in the traditionally Republican 4th District, centered in Bearden, by running his own race with little contact with the local party. He had his own victory celebration at a catering hall in Bearden on election night. He called on his Republican friends for a good turnout and a victory. He won with over 60 percent of the vote. He did in his race what the Republicans did countywide—he got his voters to the polls.

The drop-off in votes by Democrats wasn't limited to countywide races. The Democrat running for County Commission in South Knoxville unopposed in February got 2,442 votes. Vernon Rose dropped out due to health reasons and was replaced by Chuck Ward. If Ward had gotten 2,442 votes last Thursday, he would have won the commission seat. As it was, he lost 2,426-1,769.

The Democrats do have both seats in the East Knoxville's 1st District and in the 2nd District north of downtown, and with Saunders have five members of the County Commission. Amy Broyles easily beat Chuck Bolus, who was appointed last year and removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. Sam McKenzie, who has been serving under an appointment from the 1st District since February, easily won election to the term.

At Sapphire on election night, McKenzie, Broyles, and their friends were celebrating, but there was little joy to be seen elsewhere. Supporters of former County Clerk Mike Padgett, who was running for the U.S. Senate, were shocked at the results. Padgett ran third behind winner Bob Tuke and a guy named Gary Davis, who spent no money and did not campaign. Supporters were arguing that Tennessee had two incumbent congressmen in Lincoln Davis and David Davis, and maybe there was name confusion on the ballot.

What Daugherty finds depressing is the loss of Criminal Court Judge Ken Irvine. Irvine was appointed to the post by Gov. Phil Bredesen after the death of Judge Ray Jenkins. The local bar recognized Irvine as a good judge and well qualified. He was opposed by Sessions Court Judge Bob McGee, looking to move up to the circuit court level. The Republican sweep gave McGee a huge victory.

"He was our best candidate," says Daugherty, and "he didn't get many more votes than Scott Emge. That's going to make recruiting Democratic candidates even harder. They'll have to step back and ask themselves if they can win."

Johns says the GOP unity effort spent about $23,000 over and above what the candidates spent on get-out-the-vote efforts. Daugherty says he had a similar effort planned, but that after he resigned as chair, it's his understanding the plan was scrapped in favor of giving the money to individual candidates.

Democrats and Republicans say many of the Democratic voters in Knoxville have moved into the area in recent years. While they may turn out for an Obama-Hillary race, they are not really invested in courthouse politics. As time passes, they may become more involved in local races and have more of an impact.

The Democratic candidates were outspent in this election, the Democratic Party was outspent, and popular Republican incumbents like U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, Corker, Burchett, Woodson, and Haslam called on the faithful to participate.

Black Wednesday and term limits have shattered the Republican courthouse machine, but it appears last week's election was the first step in putting it back together