In the eyeball-to-eyeball partisan confrontation over a disputed state Senate seat from Shelby County, a Democratic member of the Tennessee Senate blinked Tuesday night. A contrary view would be that he opened his eyes and saw the light.

Regardless of how his vote ends up being regarded – and assuming it stands up when a final vote on the issue is taken Thursday – Democratic senator Don McLeary of Humboldt broke party ranks and made the difference as the Senate, functioning as a 33-member “Committee of the Whole” for special-session purposes, voted 17-15 to void the results of last fall’s special election in District 29.

That meant that Democrat Ophelia Ford, who had been sworn in and tenuously seated, pending the completion of a committee investigation into the election, might soon be ousted, while Terry Roland, her former Republican opponent whose protest of Ford’s apparent 13-vote victory had generated the investigation, had renewed hope that he might become a senator, after all – perhaps through interim appointment by a Republican-dominated Shelby County commission.

The vote Tuesday night came in response to a formal resolution introduced earlier in the day bySenate Republican leader Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who had served notice that he would not wait on the results of a completed investigation by the six-member special Senate committee appointed to recommend action on Roland’s challenge.

That committee, which Ramsey is member of, had voted 4-2 Monday to withhold its findings until further research could establish questionable votes in addition to the six (two dead “voters” and four felons) whose existence was now taken for granted.

The committee’s Republican chairman, Micheal Williams of Maynardville, had voted with three Democrats to continue the investigation on the assumption that no action would be taken unless the total of questionable votes should pass the magic number of 13, corresponding to Ford’s victory margin. The investigative process, which involved acquiring and combing through Social Security records for the district, was estimated to require two more weeks.

That wasn’t good enough for Ramsey, who charged Monday that available evidence indicated the District 29 election “stinks to high heaven,” despite the fact that its results had been duly certified by the Shelby County Election Commission.

Williams abstained from voting Tuesday, as he had last Thursday in a vote on a failed resolution disputing two indicted Democrats’ rights to participate in the current special election. But McLeary, who had voted with his fellow Democrats to defeat that resolution narrowly, changed sides on the District 29 vote. Simultaneously, Miller, who had voted with the Democrats last Thursday, reverted to party ranks for Tuesday night’s vote. Those two actions together determined the outcome.

Though all 33 members of the state Senate had been available for the vote to void the District 29 election, they will have to vote on the issue all over again Thursday, this time as the Senate itself, and not as the special “Committee of 33”whose recorded vote Tuesday was no more than advisory.

The outcome is by no means as certain as it might seem, since Lt. Governor John Wilder, the nominally Democratic Senate speaker, was known to have worked overtime behind the scenes to sustain Ford’s election. Wilder, whose long tenure as Speaker has depended both on bipartisan support and his established mastery of parliamentary mechanics – not to mention I.O.U.’s owed him by members of both parties – is expected to intensify his efforts in an effort to get a different outcome on Thursday.

”This isn’t just a referendum on Ophelia Ford. It’s a referendum on Wilder’s control,” acknowledged one of Ford’s supporters on Tuesday. And that fact could loom large, come Thursday.

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