Politics » Politics Feature

Changing Weather

Tennessee is seeing an ongoing — and accelerating — political shift.

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A slight dipping of temperatures on Tuesday, Election Day, and a modest amount of rain splatter combined to make one wonder whether any of this would turn out to have impacted the proportions of this week's vote, however minutely.

Weather is one of those factors that has proven to have altered outcomes in the past, and conventional wisdom used to hold that Democrats, who in theory numbered more working people in their ranks than did Republicans, were most adversely affected by changes, especially if they became severe — the idea being that getting to the polls is a larger issue than usual for people whose time, mobility, and liberty of action are more tightly rationed.

To what extent this might be true in 2010 is harder than usual to estimate — the reason being that new political allegiances are causing unforeseen shifts in the composition of both major political parties. Memphian Jim Kyle, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, observed during the past year — much of which was taken up with his own ultimately aborted run for governor — that a new species of political animal had appeared in Tennessee: the Yellow Dog Republican.

Yellow Dog Democrats — people whose loyalty to their party is so stout that, as the expression goes, they'd as soon vote for a yellow dog as a Republican — are clearly a vanishing breed, with rural voters especially becoming adjusted to new habits and new preferences.

It was unimaginable 20 years ago, at a time when Tennessee had a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators, and a General Assembly that was overwhelmingly Democratic in both houses, that the pendulum would have swung as far as it has in the direction of the GOP.

Even now, two years before a presumably lopsidedly Republican General Assembly will have the opportunity to redistrict Tennessee's congressional and legislative districts to suit themselves, there is a consensus that only two of the state's congressional districts — the 9th, which is most of Memphis, and the 5th, which is Davidson County (Nashville) — can be thought of as reliably Democratic.

In the case of Memphis, where African Americans predominate in the electorate, racial loyalties figure prominently. Nashville, more balanced ethnically and possessing a more upscale population, is a more curious case.

Metropolitan Nashville is something of an enclave, a relic of the time when the entirety of the old Confederacy was once regarded at election time as the solid Democratic South. It is the only large jurisdiction in Tennessee, and perhaps in the South at large, where white male liberals can regularly be elected to positions of governmental responsibility — the capital city's two most recently elected mayors, Bill Purcell and Karl Dean, being cases in point.

It is a foregone conclusion that legislative races elsewhere are likely to tilt further in the Republican direction this year. If the erosion of Democratic power becomes evident in Nashville itself, where no fewer than three state House of Representatives seats — those of the retiring Ben West, of current Democratic caucus chair Mike Turner, and of Sherry Jones — were actively targeted by Republicans this year, then something like a monsoon may be under way.

• Meanwhile, Shelby County was the site of intensified partisan combat as the 2010 election season drew to a close.

Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee whose run for governor often had an indifferent feel to it, proved in a couple of late speeches — notably one last Friday before the members of the Central Rotary Club in Memphis — that he had the know-how, the drive, and the internal coherence to serve as Tennessee's chief executive officer in the unlikely event he got a chance to.

But his opponent, Bill Haslam, the Republican who seemingly had earned a lock on the office after two years of a skillful, tireless, and, to be sure, well-financed effort up and down the length of Tennessee, had recouped somewhat from his one egregious lapse — a cave-in to gun activists on the issue of abolishing carry permits — and vowed in Memphis on election eve that he would do what he could to dissuade the legislature from even taking up such a measure.

Roy Herron, the respected state Senator from Dresden and would-be 8th District congressman who, like fellow Democrat Travis Childers in Mississippi's 1st District, crawfished on his party label and tried to win on cosmetics and political skills alone, came on strong at the end with a few reminders of his own accomplishments and some unresolved mysteries concerning his elusive opponent, Republican Stephen Fincher.

Still, the polls leading up to the ultimate one on Election Day remained more kindly for Fincher and for Childers' challenger, Alan Nunnelee.

Even Charlotte Bergmann, a preordained loser in the 9th District congressional race — for arithmetical reasons if nothing else — had managed within the campaign's last month to transform herself from a fringe candidate of uncertain provenance to a legitimate representative of the Republican Party.

Republican Tim Cook was making his third straight try at grabbing off the 93rd state House district in Southeast Memphis from veteran Democrat Mike Kernell. (Redistricting by a triumphant GOP may eventually accomplish, perhaps in two years' time, what no Kernell opponent, Democrat or Republican, has yet been able to do.) For the time being, Kernell was — and should have been — more concerned about the sentence his son David will receive for famously hacking Sarah Palin's e-mail account in 2008.

Democrat Jeanne Richardson, though heavily favored, was working as though she had a neck-and-neck challenge on her hands from Republican newcomer Clay Shelton in District 89 (Midtown). Richardson, whose first name has been mispronounced "Jeanie" so consistently in her life that she answers to it, got off one of the best lines of the campaign.

When daughter Danielle complained at Shelton's attempt to paint the incumbent as "the most liberal member of the legislature," Richardson (a sponsor of a medical marijuana bill and much else) replied reassuringly, "Darling, I am the most liberal member of the legislature."

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