GOP eyes sweep, Democrats play defense in Tennessee races

GOP eyes sweep, Democrats play defense in Tennessee races

August 16th, 2010 by Andy Sher in Politics State

See how one independent analyst views Tennessee elections this year at http://rothenbergpoliticalreport.com/state/tennessee.

NASHVILLE - This is the big one, Tennessee Republicans say: the opportunity in fall elections to win the governorship, capture a majority of congressional seats and solidify GOP control of the General Assembly.

GOP leaders are keeping their fingers crossed that 2010 elections will put the party in its strongest position since post-Civil War Reconstruction, just in time to redraw 132 legislative districts and nine congressional seats for 2012 elections.

"Certainly we're not taking anything for granted, but I believe it's going to be a very good year for Republicans across the state," state party Chairman Chris Devaney said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester says that's "preposterous."

"They have just come out of a set of primaries that have been about as bloody as I have seen in 20 years," said Forrester. He said Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter should win his race, and so should Democrats in two open congressional races. The party is also in excellent position to retake the state House from Republicans, he said.

Outside observers aren't so sure.

It's an off-year election, and a struggling economy and other factors have the public looking askance at President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.

Republicans have a majority in the state House and Senate, and popular Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is term limited and can't run again. Obama did dismally here in 2008, and 65 percent of state voters in a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. survey in July ranked his job performance low.

"They (Democrats) face a state which has a Republican lean to it," said Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer, who estimates the statewide GOP advantage at 10 points. "That means they (Democrats) normally need favorable conditions or favorable candidates ... to win races that are statewide."

Oppenheimer said Democrats, who have strong support in some areas of Tennessee, can be more competitive in local races for the state legislature or Congress.

Governor's race

Nathan Gonzales, political editor with the Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Tennessee's governor's contest presents a "tremendous Republican takeover opportunity" and that nominee Bill Haslam "is well positioned."

McWherter acknowledged Haslam has a "gazillion dollars" but said he will have enough to be competitive.

"We never thought we could match him dollar for dollar," McWherter said. "The point is being able to get our message out."

McWherter, a Jackson beer distributor, has lent his campaign $1 million. Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Corp., has put in $1.4 million. Neither rules out spending more of their personal wealth. Haslam is believed to be far richer but refuses to divulge specific information.

Haslam's fundraising dwarfs McWherter's. He raised $9.2 million during the primary, spent at least $8.8 million and had $1.9 million on hand as of July 26.

McWherter, who faced no primary opponent, has raised $1.559 million and had $1.2 million as of July 26. He recently spent $500,000 on his first television ads and says he plans to step up fundraising.

The latest independent poll, conducted Monday by Rasmussen Reports, found Haslam was up by 25 points, at 56 percent to McWherter's 31 percent.

The McWherter camp says Rasmussen's polling often favors Republicans.

congressional offensive

With Democratic Rep. John Tanner in the 8th Congressional District and Bart Gordon in the 6th stepping down, Republicans are hot to take those seats.

"The 6th is a much easier takeover (for Republicans)," analyst Gonzales said, "while the 8th, I think, is one of the best pure tossup races in the country." The 8th District includes Jackson and stretches across many northern parts of rural West Tennessee.

In that district, Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron, a Dresden attorney, faces Republican farmer Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump. In the 6th District, Republican Diane Black, a state senator from Gallatin, faces Democratic newcomer Brett Carter, of Hendersonville.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Andy Seré believes the 4th Congressional District is in play as well.

Marion County Republican Scott DesJarlais hopes to unseat incumbent Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat from Pall Mall.

Vanderbilt's Oppenheimer and other political analysts say things "lean" toward Davis, at least for now, noting the natural advantages of incumbency in a largely rural district.

"That doesn't mean that Lincoln Davis is insulated from all the partisan swings of this year," Oppenheimer said.

Conversely, all agree that despite a bitter GOP primary with rival Robin Smith in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, Republican nominee Chuck Fleischmann easily should defeat Democrat John Wolfe, who has run twice previously.

"No chance," Gonzales said.

STATE RACES

While not as visible as the top contests for governor and Congress, Tennessee's 2010 general election showcases the ongoing struggle for the General Assembly. That fight will occur outside Southeast Tennessee, where contests were settled in primaries.

Republicans control the state Senate 19-14, but Democrats haven't given up. Few expect Democrats to retake the House, where Republicans have a 50-48 advantage with one independent, House Speaker Kent Williams, of Elizabethton.

Depending on who's talking, as many as 14 Democratic and Republican House seats could be in play. Democrats hope to knock off several first-term Republicans and win open seats. GOP leaders look at picking up open seats, several held by rural Democrats and one district in Nashville.

"We're going to be talking about Tennessee, and they're going to be talking about Obama and Pelosi," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville. He added he hopes Tennesseans "won't get caught up in all the hype going on in Washington and stay home."

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of College Grove, said, "The mood of the country and the mood of the state is they don't like what they see at the national level, and that means one thing and that's change."

REDRAWING DISTRICTS

The 2010 election winners will wield the pen in legislative and congressional redistricting for 2012 elections.

"There's a lot on the line," Devaney said.

On its website, the nonpartisan magazine Governing looks at the battle for state legislatures nationwide. It says the state Senate and House "lean" Republican.

"The Democrats have been fading in Tennessee, and the end of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's two terms this year should only accelerate that trend," Governing notes.

Forrester countered, "They're not looking at the same map we are."


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