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As the Nation Goes One Way, Tennessee Goes the Other

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To put in some context the disconnect between those of us earthlings who live in these parts and the rest of the political species, a single email slug-line from a Republican publicist up yonder in Nashville, Bill Hobbs, said part of it: "HISTORY!"

Not what you think. Hobbs was documenting what appeared to be his party's total takeover of the Tennessee legislature. Both houses. This at a time when Democrats were sweeping the nation, and the entire world was focused on the landslide election of a new American president, the African-American Democrat from Illinois, Barack Obama.

As for the rest of the off-story, that which affects the small corner of Tennessee called Shelby County was that, well into the night, there were no returns to speak of in the races that most concerned local citizens - nothing, for example, in the city council race between Kemp Conrad, a Republican, and Paul Shaffer, a Democrat.

When returns finally began to be counted (the problem was in absentee ballots, we were told in periodic news reports through the evening) Conrad had a lead. He would finish with a 42 percent of the total, as aganst 33 percent for Demcorat Paul Shaffer and an unexpected 20 percent for John Willingham, who set out to be a spoiler for fellow Republican Conrad.

A true surprise: All of the fine-print items, two city ordinances, two county ones, and six from the city Charter Commission, passed easily.

So what happened in Tennessee? How did the Volunteer State end up on another planet altogether from neighboring Arkansas, which at least re-elected its Democratic senator, Mark Pryor, or Mississippi, which returned the Dixiecrat Travis Childers over his Republican opponent Greg Davis in the Magnolia State's First congressional district. For one thing, Tennessee Democrats performed some of the most amateurish politicking ever seen - a decided contrast to the polished operation run for more than a year on behalf of Obama himself.

Such money as was lavished upon the Volunteer State by national Democratic sources was allocated by the state party almost entirely to four state Senate seats and a handful of House seats - where, in both cases, results were below par. Nothing for the Obama-Biden ticket itself, and the failings of party strategy could be summed up in two circumstances: the fact that Democrat Randy Camp's game plan in state Senate district 29 - John Wilder's old bailiwick - consisted almost entirely in the fundamentally dishonest claim that his Republican opponent, state Rep. Dolores Gresham, had voted to raise her own pay X number of times.

This old chestnut is undeserving in the extreme - across-the-board legislative and congressional pay raises are always embedded in budget resolutions at the end of sessions and are inseparable from them. Everybody votes for them. They have to! Ronnie Musgrove's losing Senate campaign in Mississippi was based on the same bankrupt strategy.

In Tennessee the strategists who ran the legislative campaign decided also to try to make something of the participation of former Governor Don Sundquist or of members of his administration in assorted legislative races (including Gresham-Camp). This, Democratic strategists trumpeted, without any evidence whatsoever, meant that the Republicans meant to pick up the campaign of a state income tax where Sundquist left off in 2001.

At the beginning of this election season, most attention in Tennessee was focused in three or four tightly contested races for the state Senate. The Democrats hoped they could win all four, giving them once again a majority in the Senate, whereby Memphis’ Jim Kyle, the Democratic Senate leader would become the new Speaker.

That didn’t happen; the GOP pretty much ran the table, in fact, and Ramsey’s majority is now stronger than before. Worse, from the state Democratic point of view, was the unexpected loss of enough state House seats to give the Republicans a one-vote majority there. That means, among other things, that longtime Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington will lose his position.

Said Jeff Ward, a Tipton Countian and leader of the possibly resurgent TeamGOP organization which has been after House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s scalp all these years, “You won’t believe where they’re going to put Naifeh’s office now. He’ll be lucky to get space in a bathroom.” Things probably aren’t that bad, but the hard-driving, somewhat autocratic longtime Democratic speaker may indeed find himself dealing with some retribution here and there as Republican Speaker-designate Jason Mumpower of Bristol takes over. In the wake of the election, there were numerous suggestions from sources both friendly and unfriendly to Naifeh that the 67-year-old Speaker might find it timely to retire.

Naifeh, of course, has been able to get Republican votes before when it came time for the House to elect its officers, but those were always occasions when he already had enough Democratic votes to win reelection as Speaker, and the GOP votes were obvious efforts to build bridges to the man with the power.

The Republicans will have the power now, not just in the two legislative chambers, but in the election of constitutional officers – secretary of state, comptroller, and treasurer. The GOP will also find itself the majority part of the five-member county elections commissions, which historically have been Democratic over Republican by a margin of 3 to 2, even in East Tennessee counties where the Democratic voter is minuscule or non-existent.

All of this may or may not mean the austerity that Mumpower and Ramsey have already pledged. The Republican Congressional majority that existed in the second Bush term eventually turned into big spender, a factor in the national party’s fall from glory. But social causes like anti-abortion and pro-gun measures are sure to advance.

Governor Phil Bredesen, who went all out for several of the losing Democratic candidates, may find his initiatives stymied and be forced to re-invent the idea of “triangulation.”

And the new Republican-dominated legislature, if it can maintain its numerical advantage, will be able to shepherd the state’s redistricting procedures after the 2010 census, both for the state legislature and for congressional seats, where they hope to gain in West and Middle Tennessee.

“It may be the end of the Democrats in Tennessee as an effective state party,” worried Memphis city councilman Jim Strickland.

That, of course, remains to be seen. As we can see from the national results, the political pendulum does swing back and forth. But for the time being it has swung the Republicans’ way in Tennessee.

More as details become available

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