Earlier this month, the Republicans won what in some circles was an unexpected victory, but their preeminence at the national level -- by the most modest of majorities in Congress -- will be tested again in two years, when there will be a presidential election and new congressional and gubernatorial races.
At state and local levels, meanwhile, neither Republicans nor Democrats have a clear edge.
Statewide: The Democrats won the governor's race, but their candidate, Gov.-elect Phil Bredesen, ran as a centrist and won that way. Consequently, he'll have no particular mandate, and certainly not one with strong partisan overtones. Both branches of the legislature will almost certainly be under Democratic control again -- with a newly renominated Jimmy Naifeh in the House and John Wilder in the Senate holding the reins.
But octogenarian Wilder of Somerville -- dependent on a bipartisan coalition and notoriously reluctant to commit on controversial issues like that of a state income tax (which is probably a nonissue now) -- straddles the party line. And Naifeh of Covington, whose pro-income-tax forces fell short in the last session and who will have a slimmer majority in the new one, will presumably have to tread more cautiously.
Naifeh won his party's nod for another Speakership term over the weekend in Nashville, but dissident Democrats who preferred Rep. Frank Buck of Dowelltown may team up with GOP members to trim Naifeh's sails on procedural questions. Memphis state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, newly elected as the majority Democrats' party whip, is feisty and determined on policy issues, but she, too (as a onetime supporter of GOP Sen. Fred Thompson) is used to making common cause with Republicans.
State Sen. Lincoln Davis of Pall Mall, a Democrat, has been elected to the 4th District congressional seat currently held by Van Hilleary, the Republicans' defeated gubernatorial candidate. That gives the Democrats a technical 5-4 majority of the state delegation, but Davis is about as conservative as a Democrat can be and will undoubtedly line up with moderate and conservative Democrats in a "Blue Dog" coalition that already includes the 8th District's John Tanner and the 9th District's Harold Ford Jr.
All things considered, neither party can be said to have an edge on the other in state political affairs.
At the Local Level: In Shelby County, same kind of tenuous balance prevails. Democrat A C Wharton won the mayor's race but with support from every point on the political spectrum. Never much of a political partisan and without discernible commitment to local Democratic Party affairs, Wharton is virtually a nonparty mayor, a functional independent.
Republicans swept the other constitutional county offices, but the strongest partisans among them -- Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas and county register Tom Leatherwood -- hold positions that are virtually nonpolitical. Many of the other county officers are Republicans only nominally -- the party label having simply provided their best chance at getting nominated and elected.
The current Shelby County Commission is dominated by Republicans in the same 7-6 ratio as before, but political partisanship per se will be relatively unimportant on a body that has seen bipartisan coalitions flourish on the key issues of zoning and growth policy.
In any case, the county's demographics will continue to shade in the direction of black, predominantly Democratic voters over the next few years, and the partisan edge will shift accordingly.
In city politics, black Democratic voters have a clear edge, but city government is formally nonpartisan, and, in fact, partisan politics plays no role in the affairs and votes of the city council. Mayor-for-life Willie Herenton is nominally a Democrat, but the importance of that party label for him was best indicated by his support of victorious Republican Lamar Alexander for the U.S. Senate.
Party Organization: Both local parties will elect new officers next year. The Republicans, who will hold reorganization caucuses in January and a party convention in February, go first.
So far, five candidates -- Kemp Conrad, Nancye Hines, Bob Pitman, Arnold Weiner, and Ray Butler -- have announced for GOP chairman, and a sixth, Rick Rout, son of former county mayor Jim Rout, has not announced his decision about staying in the race after falling into disfavor with the party steering committee. Some weeks ago, a majority voted to seek Rout's resignation from the committee on grounds of his publicly expressed disavowal of last summer's nominee for county mayor, Dr. George Flinn.
Conrad would seem clearly to be the candidate to beat. First out of the box with his organizational efforts, the 29-year-old businessman played host to a crowded meeting of supporters Monday night. His declared backers include a virtual who's who of party luminaries -- including seven former party chairmen and a number of currently serving public officials.
Moreover, there is some spread to Conrad's base -- with supporters ranging from social conservatives like Wayne West to moderates like Annabel Woodall and Bill Gibbons. Conrad made a point of supporting Flinn when others were reticent, but his primary recent activity was on behalf of Alexander and legislative candidate John Pellicciotti, who came close to unseating longtime Democratic state Rep. Mike Kernell.
Conrad has also been prominent in an official party outreach effort to recruit African Americans and Hispanics to the Republican Party. "It's the future of the party we're talking about here. It's about where we're going," Conrad said this week. "Our theme for the campaign will be reconnecting and reaching out. The party is very fractured right now. It's an urban county we live in. And, as everybody knows, our demographics are changing."
As they mount their own campaigns, Conrad's opponents -- most of them identified with conservative constituencies -- will have a chance to express their own points of view.
Local Democrats don't elect new officers and a new executive committee until April, and no definite chairmanship candidates have emerged yet, though current chairman Gale Jones Carson, is presumed interested in running again.
She may or may not draw some determined opposition, depending on the degree to which opposing Democrats identify her with Mayor Herenton, whom she serves as administrative aide, or former chairman Sidney Chism, a Herenton intimate who vigorously supported her chairmanship efforts during two previous campaigns, including the one last year, when she was elected without much difficulty.
Though Carson proved adroit in walking through the minefield caused by Herenton's overt support of the GOP's Alexander, some Democrats blame her for the party's record in the summer's county election, when no Democrat won but Wharton -- whose campaign was more or less separate from the party's overall effort.
And Chism angered several Democratic legislators, who felt he supported their primary opponents (something which the former chairman has denied). "Let's put it this way," said Democratic executive member Steve Steffens, who publicly denounced Herenton as a "traitor" after the November 5th election, "if Sidney got to be the candidate himself, that would be something which I'd have to try to prevent. So would the legislators."
Steffens was noncommittal about Carson but predicted, "I doubt she'll have a free ride."