Mid-term blockbuster election awaits Tennesseans in 2018

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Haslam will address a Senate health committee next month looking into health care reform.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's 2018 election season is shaping up as a major blockbuster, with wide-open races for governor and U.S. Senate as Democrats seek to make a historic political comeback and Republicans rally to defend their political dominance.

It's the first time in 16 years that both the governor's mansion and a U.S. Senate seat have been up for grabs in Tennessee.

In fact, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said the Volunteer State is the only state he knows of nationally where there are open contests for both offices.

Inevitably, that has unleashed a horde of not only high-profile Republicans, but, for the first time in years, it has drawn in well-known Democratic candidates as well.

Both sides will first battle it out among themselves in the Aug. 2 party primaries before the main event Nov. 6.

The starting place for it all is a term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and last fall's surprise announcement by Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker that he would forgo seeking a third term in the midst of the Chattanooga senator's public clashes with Republican President Donald Trump.

The backdrop, meanwhile, is the national mid-term election. Voter sentiment about Trump and the Republican Congress are expected to be on the ballot at a time when Democrats nationally and in Tennessee are fired up over Republican actions in Washington.

"You got a strong slate of candidates on the Republican side, strong candidates on the Democratic side. We don't have that that often in Tennessee," said Kent Syler, an assistant political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. "It's going to be a major election year."

While the races for governor and U.S. Senate are the marquee events, Tennesseans are also looking at three open congressional seats in the 2nd, 6th and 7th Congressional Districts in East and Middle Tennessee.

All 99 state House seats and 17 of the 33 state Senate seats are up amid a wave of retirements and departures. Add to this electoral mix hundreds of contests for county offices ranging from mayors, sheriffs, commissioners and clerks all the way down in rural areas to road commissioners and constables.

County party primary contests are in May, with the local general election in August on the same day as the state and federal party primaries.

At this point, five major Republican candidates are running for the GOP nomination. They are: U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, former state economic commissioner and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, Franklin businessman Bill Lee and former state Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet.

Meanwhile, Democrats hope to stage a return to relevance in Tennessee. In a state where Democrats' last nominee for governor was a virtual unknown with a famous name - Charlie Brown - former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, are now vying for their party's nomination.

Corker's move, meanwhile, has had its ripple effects as well.

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in West Tennessee face each other in the GOP primary.

Last month, the last Democrat to win a statewide election in Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, announced he was running for the Senate seat. While there already was a Democratic candidate, Nashville attorney James Mackler who has since dropped out, Bredesen's bid is drawing national attention.

No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Tennessee since Al Gore's 1990 re-election. Harold Ford Jr. came close in his 2006 race with Corker for the then-open seat during a mid-term election when President George W. Bush's popularity was ebbing.

Since then, Democrats' Senate candidates have fallen short, with Democrats' low point coming in 2012 when an unknown anti-gay activist with Republican leanings unexpectedly captured the party's nomination and was later booted from the ballot by the state party.

This cycle, Democrats are ecstatic about their prospects.

"We have the wind at our back," said state Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini, who points to 2017 Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrat Doug Jones' win over Republican Roy Moore in a special U.S. Senate election in Alabama and Tennessee Democrats' narrow miss in a special state Senate election in Middle Tennessee.

Mancini said Democrats "have candidates up and down the ticket who have a history of getting things done and making government work for people. They're hard workers and hard campaigners."

GOP Chairman Golden acknowledged Republicans are currently "facing a head wind this time" nationally. "Democrats are excited. That just means we have to work that much harder and we're doing things both tactically and strategically" to ensure that.

Golden also noted that there's a lot of ground to cover before November and with Washington's GOP leadership standing to make gains with an improving economy. Congressional Republicans last month passed a major federal tax overhaul, while Trump has cut regulations and nominated a number of conservatives to federal judgeships that Senate Republicans have confirmed.

Moreover, Golden said, voters are pleased with how Haslam and GOP legislators have governed the state since taking complete control of state government in 2011. And he added that he believes Tennessee Republicans stand a good chance of making more history in November by electing another Republican as governor to succeed Haslam.

Still, MTSU's Syler said, the "thing you cannot not underestimate is this is a mid-term election with what could be a fairly unpopular president and those can create waves."

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political professor at Vanderbilt University, said "clearly there is some energy in the Democratic Party nationally which is important and it started with the inauguaration but it's continued. And you've continued to see Democratic turnout in these special elections."

With Republicans' U.S. Senate margin soon to be 51-49, Democrats nationally have more seats to defend in 2018 than Republicans. That makes a Tennessee victory important to both sides and both parties and independent expenditure groups are expected to spend heavily.

Oppenheimer said it would not surprise him if the total tab in the Senate race hits or exceeds $85 million in terms of candidates' own campaign expenditures coupled with outsiders' spending.

Much attention has been paid in Tennessee to the narrow GOP victory in last month's state Senate District 17 race.

Republican state Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon, a social conservative on issues such as opposing same-sex marriage, won the contest. But he only eked out a 308-vote margin in a six-county district northeast of Nashville that Trump carried by 48 percentage points in 2016 over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

GOP strategist Ward Baker, a Tennessean who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee's successful 2016 effort, said the outcome was, in effect, a wake-up call for Republicans not to get too complacent.

In a series of Twitter blasts, Baker, an adviser to Blackburn in her U.S. Senate bid, attributed the close shave to Pody's failure to deploy the latest technology. Republicans, Baker said, must "wake up and engage the voter base."

"In TN's #SD17, Democrats shifted a deep red seat by 46 points," Baker wrote. "We may have a 2006 environment, but we can't run 2006 campaigns. It's 2018 - only data-driven campaigns will deliver reliable wins #GetPrepared."

It "should be a clear example of why we can't take anything for granted," Baker said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.