Opinion: Hamilton County suburbs turning purple as Republican dominance in municipalities wanes

Staff Photo By Olivia Ross / Deirdre Hamill waves at passing cars as she stumps for votes for Red Bank Commission candidate Jamie Fairbanks Harvey outside Calvary Baptist Church on Election Day earlier this month.

As Tennessee was transitioning to a solid Republican state in the 2000s, something different was happening in the Hamilton County suburbs.

The GOP's once reliable municipalities were changing. Where previously nearly nine out of 10 voters in some of those suburbs could be counted on to vote for the Republican ticket in state and national elections, that is no longer the case. Call it purpling, if you will.

Hamilton County itself is still reliably Republican, but the party's support is no longer solely extant in the wealthy and well-heeled suburbs with which it once was associated.

The purpling of the suburbs, though, may offer fertile ground for Democrats, who are currently shut out of all Hamilton County constitutional offices, are in an 8-3 minority on the Hamilton County Commission and haven't won a statewide race since 2006.

Take, for example, the wealthy Lookout Mountain election precinct. In 1998, Lookout Mountain voters gave almost 88% of their vote to Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who was seeking re-election. In 2022, according to unofficial results, the same precinct gave just over 69% of its vote to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who was seeking re-election. That's not even 2% more than the governor picked up in his 2018 election over better known and better financed Democratic foe Karl Dean.

It's the same on tony Signal Mountain, where Sundquist garnered 84% of the vote in his re-election bid but Lee only 57% and 60% of the vote, respectively, in its two precincts in his re-election try.

It's not just the mountains, either.

The municipalities of East Ridge and Red Bank gave Sundquist between 67% and nearly 83%, but Lee got no higher than 67% in any precinct in either town.

It wasn't just the choice of governors, either.

In the 2000 presidential election, which was so close nationally it was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, voters in all East Ridge and Red Bank precincts went for Republican George W. Bush. In 2020, with Republican Donald Trump seeking re-election, one precinct in East Ridge and Red Bank overall gave Democrat Joe Biden a majority of their votes.

In the self-contained hamlet of Ridgeside on the east side of Missionary Ridge, Republicans' share of the vote in U.S. Senate races fell from 74% when Republican Bill Frist was re-elected in 2000, to 72% when Republican Lamar Alexander was elected in 2002, to 64% when Republican Bob Corker (Chattanooga's former mayor) won in 2006, went back up to 72% and 82% when moderates Alexander and Corker were re-elected in 2008 and 2012, and down to 65% when Alexander was re-elected in 2014. Then, in 2018 and 2020, the municipality's voters chose Democrats over winning Republican candidates Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty.

Even locally, in recent years in nonpartisan elections, so-called progressive candidates in the municipalities have scored victories over so-called traditional candidates.

In the 2016 Hamilton County District 2 school board race, for instance, progressive Kathy Lennon ousted board chairman Jonathan Welch by 98 votes out of nearly 3,500 cast. Then, in 2020, Lennon's former campaign manager, Marco Perez, who terms himself an independent, defeated conservative Tom Decosimo by more than 1,400 votes in a district that at that time covered all of Signal Mountain and part of Red Bank.

In 2020, progressives Hollie Berry and Stefanie Dalton were elected commissioners in once staid, conservative Red Bank and were chosen by the body as mayor and vice mayor. Berry was re-elected earlier this month.

Similarly, Democrat David Sharpe was elected a Hamilton County commissioner in 2018 in District 6, which at the time included the wealthy precinct of Riverview and the reliable Republican Lookout Valley precincts, and was re-elected in August with his district containing all of Red Bank.

"The diversification of the suburbs has influenced that [purpling], particularly in the inner-ring suburbs," said Dr. Christopher Acuff, assistant professor of public administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "As Chattanooga has grown, people get priced out of Chattanooga and move to places like Red Bank."

He said the ideology of candidates also has played a part in the change.

"The more moderate conservative candidate plays to the ideology of voters in the suburbs -- not the fringe of the party," Acuff said.

Rachel Campbell, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said the local party has noticed the purpling of the suburbs and believes it stems partially from people who had been "willfully ignorant about party politics" now "paying attention to what's going on" (especially with issues like the end of federalized abortion rights) and "making educated and informed decisions."

She said the Republicans for whom the suburbs voted for so long "are really holding onto ideological politics and not talking about what they can do to make lives better."

Campbell said her party can take further advantage because it has "the better ideas, the better politics, the better agenda for people to have better lives. It is incumbent on the party, she said, to ask voters what directly impacts their lives and how "we can pair your needs with our politics so we can all move forward together."

Republicans who fail to heed this trend locally and nationally are doomed future election headaches.