NASHVILLE — When Air Force One’s wheels slap down at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Tuesday, Democratic President Barack Obama will find himself in a state where his party is nearly shut out.
With a black man the top of the national ticket in 2008 and 2012, state Democrats were drubbed. In 2010 midterm elections, Republicans took the governor’s office and in 2012, after the GOP controlled redistricting for the first time, the party swept to supermajorities in the House and Senate, making Democrats essentially irrelevant. Now two House Democratic leaders are hoping for gains in the 2014 midterms and are pinning their real hopes on 2016, when Obama is no longer on the ballot.
“Some of the districts that were Democratic districts a few years ago are now voting Republican mostly because of the backlash against Obama,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville.
Republicans’ “whole thing against us, they run an ad against us and put up a picture of Obama on there and that’s all they’ve done for four years now,” said Turner, who is an Obama supporter. “Now does that play when he’s no longer on the ballot?”
Explaining Tennessee Democrats’ failure thus far to field viable candidates against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle said national political headwinds matter more these days than who tops the state ballot.
“It’s more that Barack Obama was not popular in Tennessee,” the Memphis Democrat said of recent elections. “He was a national figure. It had nothing to do with Tennessee. It did not help Democrats whatsoever.”
However, Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said the symptoms of Democratic demise “were there long before Obama was president.”
“The problem has not been Obama but the Democratic Party not finding candidates,” Oppenheimer said.
He said Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen “didn’t give a hoot about the Democratic Party, so far as I can tell,” doing little to build its strength.
Obama recognized early the state couldn’t help him. During his 2008 contest, Obama made an early foray to the state Capitol and met with Bredesen. After winning the nomination, he never campaigned in Tennessee. Bredesen campaigned on his behalf, not in Tennessee but in states where it might have made a difference.
Most national Democratic strategists have written off Tennessee since 2000, when native son Al Gore failed to carry the state in his presidential race.
Race or ideas?
Obama won re-election last year with the largest percentage margin in decades, but he lost Tennessee by even more than in his first run in 2008. Republican Mitt Romney picked up 59.5 percent of the vote, to Obama’s 39 percent. AVanderbilt University poll in May showed the president with only 40 percent job approval in Tennessee.
Still, state Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese noted that “1 million Tennesseans voted for the president.” Residents are ready to welcome Obama when he visits Chattanooga on Tuesday, Puttbrese said.
“That energizes a lot of folks. … It’s always a treat when the president of the United States visits,” he said.
Last year Turner generated an uproar among Republicans when he told fellow Democrats “we’ve got a president up here whose color is not the right shade according to a lot of people, and they just hate him for that reason.”
Republicans demanded an apology. Turner refused.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of Franklin, said last week there’s no question that Obama has helped Tennessee Republicans. But it’s policy driving that, not race, he said.
“I used to think Bill Clinton was the best friend for Republicans in Tennessee, but I now think [Obama] is.”
Tennessee was turning red before Obama. State Democrats lost both U.S. Senate seats in 1994 while Clinton was president. Nearly 20 years later, they’re still in GOP hands.
Democrat Harold Ford, a black congressman from Memphis, came tantalizingly close in 2006, but lost to Republican Bob Corker. The former Chattanooga mayor was the only Republican in the nation elected to the U.S. Senate that year.
These days, Casada said, Obama’s policies are “just contrary to what most Tennesseans believe, be it the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, be it his thoughts on gun regulation. … I don’t want to limit it because you name it. Most Tennesseans disagree with the president’s positions.”
GOP’s path to power
Republicans took over the state Senate in 2006 and boosted their majority in 2008 when Obama led the ticket.
House Republicans finally clawed out a 50-seat majority in 2008, only to see the 49 Democrats throw their support to a Republican who voted for himself and became speaker. That was the year GOP officials put out a controversial mail piece featuring the bodies of three blackbirds with the faces of then-state Rep. Nathan Vaughn, a black Democrat from Kingsport, Obama and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is white.
The mailer read “Nathan Vaughn — part of the liberal, big government flock.” Vaughn denounced it as “despicable.” The GOP denied any racial intent. Vaughn lost the election.
The GOP solidified control when Republican Bill Haslam was elected in 2010 and used redistricting to strengthen their hold in the seven U.S. House seats they hold among the state’s nine.
In the 2012 GOP primary season, tea party candidates attacked several Republican incumbents by linking them to Obama in mail pieces and billboards.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, noted former President Jimmy Carter was the first to publicly state some opposition to Obama was due to racism.
“It’s so obvious and it’s so unfortunate,” said Favors, who is black. “I’ve represented a majority of white constituents. And I didn’t even think about it. … It doesn’t make a bit of difference if they need my help.”
But Casada said that Republicans “historically elect people of all colors.” He noted the Tennessee Republican Party this month had conservative U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as its guest speaker.
“We thought that much of his views,” Casada said. “As Republicans, our decision and who we like and don’t like with and agree with or disagree is based on policy, based on thoughts, not based on the color of their skins. “Those same emotions [regarding Obama] were applied to Bill Clinton,” Casada said. “There was as much angst and fear that he was ruining the country.”
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
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, ...