Despite Democratic gains in most of America, Republicans continued to pick up support in Tennessee this year, electing a GOP-controlled Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and boosting the margin of support for the GOP presidential candidate to the highest level in 20 years.
In a record year for voter turnout, Tennessee was one of only three states in which Republican presidential candidate John McCain fared better than did President George W. Bush four years ago, according to preliminary vote tallies from Tuesday’s election.
Photo by D. Patrick Harding Zach Wamp's victory was part of the GOP's strong showing in Tennessee.
Dr. John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the 57 percent vote for McCain in Tennessee reflects the state’s growing Republican tilt.
“Tennessee has increasingly become a red state and is no longer the bellwether, swing state it once was,” he said.
Among Tennessee’s 95 counties, President-elect Barack Obama won only six — Shelby, Haywood and Hardeman in West Tennessee and Houston, Davidson and Jackson in Middle Tennessee. Grundy County voted in favor of Sen. McCain, the first Republican to carry the traditionally Democratic county in modern times.
Bradley County in East Tennessee gave Sen. McCain his biggest margin of support with 74.2 percent of its voters casting ballots for the Republican presidential candidate.
Exit polls of 1,520 Tennessee voters on Tuesday indicate that Sen. McCain received 63 percent support from white Tennesseans but only 6 percent support from black voters in Tennessee.
Black voters comprised only 12 percent of Tennessee’s vote, however, far below the 30 percent share in Georgia’s vote, the 33 percent share in Mississippi and the 29 percent share in Alabama. In other Southern states other than Arkansas and Louisiana, Sen. Obama picked up greater support than did Democrat John Kerry four years ago.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who won his biggest victory in eight Congressional elections on Tuesday, said Sen. McCain and other Republicans better reflect the conservative social values of most Tennesseans.
“While President-elect Obama won the nation walking away, in Tennessee, what he stands for is very unpopular,” Rep. Wamp said. “People are very concerned about the social issues, the values issues, the constitutional issues, like guns. Those basic issues cause states like Tennessee in presidential election years to vote on their values.”
Tennessee Secretary of State Riley Darnell, a Democrat whose legislatively elected job is now in peril with the new GOP majority in the House and Senate, said the Democratic Party didn’t focus upon Tennessee and Sen. Obama didn’t campaign much in the state.
“I think if the Democrats at the national level had made a real race in Tennessee as they did in North Carolina and Georgia, we would maybe not have won the state for Obama, but we would have been credible and I think it would have blunted some of the numbers we saw this time,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake not to run a statewide campaign.”
Tennessee’s Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen said the Obama campaign’s “strategy that produced our national win came at a real cost to Democrats here in Tennessee.” The governor maintained he was not chiding Sen. Obama, noting that he thinks that while the senator could have won Tennessee had he chosen to invest the resources, “I think that was probably a wise decision” not to do so.
“The time he spent in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio gave him the election,” Mr. Bredesen said.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., who was re-elected Tuesday, said Tennessee “is a centrist-towards-conservative state.
“If you have someone perceived as liberal, Democratic or Republican, the candidate who’s perceived as more conservative will win every time,” he said.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith said she also thinks Sen. McCain’s decision to campaign in the Tri-Cities on Monday helped encourage GOP turnout in the state.
“I do think it incentivized some people to go to the polls,” Mrs. Smith said.
The share of Tennessee adults who voted in the presidential election this year, 56.2 percent, was a record high in Tennessee, up from 55 percent of all adults four years ago. The total number of votes cast in the state was up 5.9 percent from the 2004 election to a record of nearly 2.6 million.
Reporter Herman Wang contributed to this report
Video: Local democrats celebrate winDemocratic supporters from across the Chattanooga area celebrated Tuesday night after Barack Obama was selected as president-elect of the United States. Watch as locals celebrate the historic win.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...