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How a McCain Detour Cost Democrats the Tennessee Legislature

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(Note: this piece has been updated and slightly revised according to new information, some of which modifies the core story as first I heard it -- or thought I heard it. The sharp-eyed pair of geniuses who detected a minor discrepancy or two and charged me with imbecility will be pleased. Thanks, guys!)

Here's one for you out there in Political-Junkie-Land: When the import of this disclosure hits, all of you will have a moment of breathless awe - after which the Republicans among you will see the corners of your mouths form the comic mask, while the Democrats will go tragic. Here's the deal: Tennessee's legislature may have just gone Republican - with all that this entails for the future of state and even national government - because of a purely inadvertent detour on John McCain's part.

That's right: an improvised flight plan on the part of the defeated Republican presidential candidate is what turned the Tennessee General Assembly fire-engine red.

Tennessee Republican National Committeeman John Ryder and I did a joint review of the just-concluded campaign on Thursday to the members of the Memphis and Shelby County Homebuilders group in Cordova. I had made the point that the state House of Representatives would have remained Democratic - though just barely, by 50-49 - had the state's District 2 state House seat gone to incumbent Democrat Nathan Vaughn rather than to Republican Tony Shipley, who eked out an apparent victory by 1 percent.

In the last week of the campaign Shipley had spurted past Vaughn, who only days before had led his GOP opponent by 6 points in a reliable poll.

The turnabout, I pointed out, owed a great deal to the last-minute visit to the district by McCain, who attracted a good deal of attention in Sullivan County when he spoke there on Monday, election eve, after landing at the Blountville, Tennessee, airport.

No less an observer than state Republican chairperson Robin Smith has attributed a deluge of late votes in the northeast Tennessee area to that visit.

Ryder added the surprise clincher on Thursday: Though, like everybody else - including ultimate Democratic presidential winner Barack Obama, who did not deign to visit Tennessee himself - McCain had conceded the Volunteer State to the McCain-Palin ticket, the Republican standard-bearer was deeply concerned about Virginia (which he ultimately lost, if narrowly) and scheduled an impromptu election-eve visit to southwest Virginia.

Here's where the gremlins come in, as Ryder explained. The closest airport available for the Arizona senator's campaign plane to land was Blountville, and that's where he set down - in Tennessee, not Bristol, Virginia, just on the other side of the state line. Tennessee is where the airport is for the divided city - not Virginia. The long and the short of it is that McCain ended up doing a well-noted rah-rah speech in the home town of Tennessee's Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey - a visit that greatly facilitated the Republicans' climactic Get-Out-the-Vote effort in what just happened to the second district of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

The result: a flip of the vote there, whereby the GOP's Shipley got his unexpected narrow win over Democrat Vaughn, and the Tennessee Republicans had their first majority in the state House of Representatives since Reconstruction - by that aforesaid bare majority of 50-49. Small as that margin is, it precludes any real prospects of desperate maneuvers by longtime Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington to keep his Speakership. The next Speaker, it would seem, is going to be Jason Mumpower, the intensely conservative GOP House leader from that same northeast corner of the state.

Not just that: the Republicans, who picked up enough seats in the state Senate to make their previous one-vote edge there more comfortable (19-14) will be able, through their domination of both houses, to decide who the state's constitutional officers will be: the Secretary of State, the comptroller, the treasurer. The composition of the 95 county election commissions in Tennessee - mandated by state law to be 3-2 in favor of the majority party - will now be Republican-dominated, not Democratic-dominated.

If the current numbers hold when the next legislative election in 2010 is concluded, the Republicans - greatly assisted by the aforesaid Ryder, a gifted lawyer and one of the GOP's arbiters on reapportionment issues - will handle post-census redistricting, both for the state legislature and for Tennessee's nine congressional districts. Guess which party is likely to enhance the number of its friendly districts?

But who knows? Maybe at some point between now and then President Obama can be induced to make a timely visit or two to Tennessee, giving Democratic cadres the same kind of boost that an errant John McCain did on the GOP's behalf on Monday, November 3, 2008.

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