published Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Political parties point to pivotal election year

NASHVILLE -- The coming year could be a turning point in Tennessee politics, with an open governor's race and election redistricting at stake, Republicans and Democrats say.

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said he feels good about the GOP's chances of winning the governor's seat held by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who constitutionally is barred from seeking a third term.

Mr. Devaney also is upbeat about the announcements by Tennessee's two senior congressional Democrats that they won't seek re-election.

"Not only are we going to elect a Republican governor," Mr. Devaney said, "we're likely to elect some new Republican congressmen. And I think we'll solidify our majority in the state Senate and House."

Both parties expect an intense battle for state legislative seats because the party that controls the General Assembly will decide how state and federal election districts are redrawn after the 2010 census.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said his party has "always taken 2010 very seriously."

"It is essential that we have a plan in place to take back the state House, which my main focus has been, and then electing a Democratic governor and advancing the line on the state Senate."

In the Senate, the Republican Party holds a 19-14 majority, and no Democrats are talking seriously about regaining control of the upper chamber.

ln 2008, Republicans took control of the state House with a 50-49 majority. However, Democrats in January helped elect a Republican speaker to their liking, Rep. Kent Williams, of Elizabethton, who voted with the opposition to place himself in that chamber's top spot.

The General Assembly elected in 2010 will redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts during the 2011 or 2012 sessions.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, noted that the Republicans in October easily won a special House election in a traditionally Democratic Middle Tennessee district in part by tying the Democratic candidate to national issues.

"If the national climate today is the same way come election time, we're going to have a tough time, but I still think we can win back the House," he said.

If the economy and employment improve, Democrats should do well, Rep. Turner said.

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, of Bristol, said Democratic President Barack Obama "is doing everything he can to help us keep the House."

"The tide in Tennessee over the past several years has turned," Rep. Mumpower said. "There's a great opportunity for us to pick up seats in the state House, the state Senate and the Congress."

the battle for open seats

Regarding the governor's race, Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said that "you have to see whether the Democrats can come up with a competitive candidate and what happens if the Republicans have a bloodbath in the end, so that could still be in play."

The GOP field includes U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam; and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

Democrats running for governor are state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis; former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, of Clarksville; and Jackson, Tenn., businessman Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter.

Rep. Wamp's decision not to seek re-election to Congress has opened up Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District for the first time in 16 years. Seven Republicans are vying for the seat, while the only two Democrats who had shown an interest have bowed out.

Chattanooga City Councilman Andraé McGary is weighing a Democratic bid, but he conceded that "the odds are against a Democrat winning this race."

Bob Swansbrough, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the departure of the two Democratic candidates was "rather remarkable because the one time you usually do have a lot of candidates (in a race) is when you have a vacant seat."

Dr. Swansbrough said the 3rd District and entire state have been "moving rightward," as evidenced by last year's presidential race in which U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defeated then-U.S. Sen. Obama of Illinois in Tennessee by 57-42 percent.

Two more of the state's nine congressional seats also became open when 6th District Rep. Bart Gordon and 8th District Rep. John Tanner, both Democrats, announced they would not seek re-election.

Both were facing opposition, but some observers speculated that even if they won in 2010, Republicans could use redistricting to draw them out of existence for the 2012 election.

Dr. Oppenheimer said part of the "Republican exuberance" in Tennessee is that the state was one of a handful in 2008 to vote more heavily for Sen. McCain than then-Sen. Obama.

"I think that gives Republicans more reason for exuberance here although it may be a little more anti-Obama than it is anti-Democratic per se. But I suspect the Republicans will try to make this a referendum on the Obama administration."

The primary election is Aug. 5, and the general election is Nov. 2.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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