published Sunday, October 31st, 2010, updated Oct. 31st, 2010 at 5:17 p.m.

A crucial vote

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    Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Oct 28, 2010 Helen Reynolds, who turned 18 on Oct. 19, puts her ballot stub in a box during the last day of early voting at the Hamilton County Election Commission office on Amnicola Highway on Thursday. Her mother, Nancy Reynolds, stands behind her while election deputy Don Simpson observes.

Tennessee Republicans say they believe voters in Tuesday's midterm elections will paint the Volunteer State a deeper shade of red, pushing Democrats into their worst corner since post-Civil War Reconstruction.

"We're going to win the governorship," predicted Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney. "We're going to have a majority of Republicans in the congressional delegation, and we're going to have a much larger Republican caucus in the state Senate and the House."

A recent poll of registered voters shows Republican Bill Haslam leading Democrat Mike McWherter by more than 2-to-1 in the governor's race.

In Georgia, where Republicans have dominated the political scene since the 2002 elections, GOP leaders hope to retain the governor's mansion outright and avoid a runoff election between Republican Nathan Deal and former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes.

In Georgia, candidates must win more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff. With a Libertarian candidate in the contest, recent polls show Deal is near 50 percent.

Georgia Republicans also think they can make gains in congressional and state legislative seats.

Observers say this year's elections pose problems for Democrats nationwide, with a post-Great Recession hangover angering voters. Unemployment hovers near double digits, while approval ratings for congressional Democrats remain in the cellar. Democratic President Barack Obama's approval rating has fallen to about 50 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said that even under the rosiest projected scenario, "it's not going to be a good election for Democrats" nationally.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester acknowledged that Democrats in the home state of national Democratic Party founder Andrew Jackson face a "difficult situation" and added that the "inordinate expenditure of outside groups has made it more difficult."

"But I'd say in the last two to four weeks, the enthusiasm gap has closed," Forrester said, noting the state party has an army of volunteers cranking out get-out-the-vote telephone calls.

Georgia Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart is predicting that Republicans will do well in the Peach State.

"I feel that people are so tired of what's going on being crammed down their throats from the Obama administration that they feel their only hope is to go with us," Everhart said. "They don't trust us completely, but they trust us more than the Democrats."

Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Eric Gray countered that "rumors of the enthusiasm gap are greatly exaggerated," noting that state Democrats have 20 field offices with volunteers operating phone banks.

Calling it the "largest field operation the party has ever attempted," Gray said the phone bank "is a big part of our election strategy."

Tennessee governor

The contest to succeed Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is between Knoxville Mayor Haslam, whose family owns a majority interest in the Pilot Flying J national truck stop chain, and McWherter, a Jackson beer distributor and son of former Gov. Ned McWherter.

An Oct. 25-27 poll conducted by media research and consulting company Crawford Johnson & Northcott Inc. for Chattanooga's WRCB-TV and Nashville's WSMV-TV found 56.5 percent of 600 registered voters backed Haslam and 27.8 percent were for McWherter.

Haslam vastly has outspent McWherter. He said he has the "right experience" as mayor and as a former president of Pilot Corp. to tackle state budget problems and create jobs. His ads accentuate that experience and portray the multimillionaire as likable, a "good man" who can relate to ordinary Tennesseans.

McWherter has emphasized job creation but spent much of his time in debates and in television ads attacking Haslam as a "billionaire oilman." He also has charged Pilot "gouged" consumers in Tennessee in 2008 after Hurricane Ike. Pilot Travel Centers settled state allegations of overcharging customers without admitting wrongdoing.

"Haslam has run a very smooth, confident, well-organized campaign, and McWherter, I think, has just not had the charisma, the arguments on his side," Austin Peay State University political science professor David Kanervo said.

But over the past week, Haslam found himself on the defensive after an audiotape surfaced of his appearance before a gun-rights group.

On the tape, Haslam said that while he opposes doing away with gun permits, he would defer to the Legislature if it moved to let adults go armed without background checks and mandatory training.

McWherter accused Haslam of displaying weak leadership and having "caved in" to special interests. Haslam rejected that, saying, "If the Legislature passed such a measure after due discussion, I would sign it, but I would weigh in on the argument."

Vanderbilt's Oppenheimer said that while the contest hasn't been close, "certainly Haslam has shown in the past couple of weeks he doesn't walk on water as a candidate. He's gotten a little bit wet."

But Oppenheimer said of McWherter that "maybe if [he had] run more of a campaign a month and a half ago, [he] would have exposed more of those vulnerabilities."

nation's "nastiest"

Tennessee's highest profile race nationally is the 4th Congressional District slugfest where Republican physician Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper, is seeking to oust U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP-allied groups have spent about $1.4 million independently in the race, largely on television ads attacking Davis.

The ads portray Davis, a Pall Mall Democrat seeking a fifth term, as supporting Obama and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Davis, who opposed Obama's health care reform and the federal bank bailout, has fought back with filings from DesJarlais' 2001 divorce in which his then-wife's attorney accused him of having become "violent and threatening, dry firing a gun outside the locked bedroom door" and "holding a gun in his mouth for three hours."

DesJarlais denies the incident ever occurred and accuses Davis of "mudslinging and dirty politics."

Davis said it's about "character."

Where and when to vote:

* In Tennessee, polls will be open Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., EDT (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CDT in most Central Time locations)

* In Georgia, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

* Polling locations for Hamilton County are available on the Web at elect.hamiltontn.gov/polls_ballots/pollloc.htm.

Partisan divide

Republicans now hold most of the offices on Tuesday's ballot in Tennessee and Georgia:

Tennessee

* Incumbent governor: Democrat Phil Bredesen is term limited

* State House: 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, one independent

* State Senate: 19 Republicans, 14 Democrats

* Congressional makeup: 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans

Georgia

* Incumbent governor: Republican Sonny Perdue is term limited

* State House: 105 Republicans, 74 Democrats, one independent

* State Senate: 34 Republicans, 22 Democrats

* Congressional makeup: 7 Republicans, 6 Democrats

"Look, if that was in my background, I would not run for Congress," he said. Voters are entitled to see "if your character in your private life is not capable [of matching] the values in our district to become a public official."

David Wasserman, who follows U.S. House races nationally for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Tennessee's 4th "is one of the nastiest races in the country."

Cook rates the contest as a "toss-up," and Wasserman said, "This is one of the closest races in the country. I expect it to go down to the wire."

Wasserman said there's no contest in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District. He said Republican attorney Chuck Fleischmann, of Chattanooga, is the heavy favorite over Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe, a perennial Democratic candidate.

"It's over," Wasserman said of the contest. "There's no realistic hope of Democrats being competitive."

Also running are tea party independents Savas Kyriakidis, co-owner of the Acropolis restaurant in Chattanooga, and businessman Mark DeVol, of Oak Ridge, along with several other independents.

Republicans also hope to win open seats in Tennessee's 6th and 8th congressional districts, where Democratic incumbents Bart Gordon, of Murfreesboro, and John Tanner, of Union City, fled a hostile political environment and chose not to seek re-election.

Cook rates both the 6th and 8th contests as "likely Republican." Democrats now have a 5-4 edge in the congressional delegation, but Republicans think they can make it 6-3 and possibly 7-2 if Davis loses.

Tennessee General Assembly

An epic struggle is going on for control of Tennessee's General Assembly. In the Senate, Republicans hope to maintain or increase their 19-14 margin over Democrats.

The real battle is in the 99-member House. In 2008, Republicans won a 50-49 majority, only to see all 49 Democrats support Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, for House speaker. Williams later was banned from seeking re-election as a Republican and is running as an independent.

This year, Republicans are awash in money and pouring large sums into winning a coalition-proof majority. If they succeed, it will be the first time Republicans have controlled both chambers since shortly after the Civil War.

Republicans are pounding away at vulnerable House Democrats. Their ads often seek to nationalize contests by linking state Democrats to Obama and Pelosi, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco.

In the House District 39 contest between Rep. George Fraley, D-Winchester, and Republican challenger David Alexander, of Winchester, the GOP recently attacked Fraley in a direct mail piece.

It charges, among other things, that he is "endorsed and supported by the same liberal unions who endorsed Barack Obama for president."

Tennessee Republicans privately estimate they could gain three to five seats. But if a GOP "tsunami" develops, that could go to as high as 10 seats, some Republicans say.

State GOP Chairman Devaney only says, "I do believe we'll have what is a working majority for the next governor."

The Democrats' Forrester said, "We still see a pathway taking back the House, although it is certainly a more difficult task given the abundance of Republican financial resources that have been unleashed on the state."

But Forrester said Democrats have a good "ground game" with well-trained volunteers engaged in phone banks and other activities statewide.

Georgia contests

In Georgia, Republicans "feel real good about our races," Everhart said, quickly adding, "We're not taking anything for granted."

Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, agreed the climate favors the GOP.

"It's going to be a great year for them," Bullock said. "Right now, three of our statewide 15 partisan positions are held by Democrats. Come Nov. 2, there may not be any."

In the governor's race, Deal, a former congressman from North Georgia, and Barnes, who lost to Republican Sonny Perdue in 2002, have hurled accusations about personal ethics.

Deal leads Barnes 47 percent to 40 percent in a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. of Washington, D.C., last week. Libertarian candidate John Monds had 6 percent, and 7 percent were undecided.

Bullock is skeptical of a runoff, noting if the latest polls are accurate, Barnes would have to win all undecided voters.

Meanwhile, Bullock said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is considered safe in his re-election bid. Isakson faces Democrat Mike Thurmond and Libertarian Chuck Donovan.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., has no opponent for the 9th District seat. He replaced Deal after Deal resigned in March to run for governor.

Everhart said Republicans, who have a 7-6 edge in the congressional delegation, believe they can beat U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., in the 8th District and have a chance against U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., in the 2nd District.

Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Eric Gray said Marshall "has strong challengers every cycle, and because of that is an excellent campaigner and a wily veteran."

Bishop should win, he said.

Everhart believes Republicans "are going to pick up seats in the state House and state Senate," as well.

Georgia Republicans currently hold 34 of the 56 Senate seats and 105 of the 180 House seats.

"We'll pick up House seats," Gray countered.

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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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