Politics » Politics Feature

Going National

What will happen in Tuesday’s local and state elections has been happening everywhere.



Much of the story of the 2010 political season — and of the various races and causes to be resolved locally on Tuesday, November 2nd — can be focused on the dramatic rise of Republican hopes nationally and the simultaneous demise of Democratic ones.

There was an overriding irony to it all, in that neither party had especially altered their rhetorical formulas of 2006 and 2008, resurgent years for the Democrats and difficult ones for Republicans.

On the GOP side of the line, there was no acknowledgment that Republican policies might have led directly to the huge deficit, the housing bust, or the economy's dramatic crash — all factors that had led to Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in almost a generation.

National spokespersons for the Republican Party pooh-poohed their losses in 2006 and 2008 with the explanation that "we got fired" for spending too much. That nobody can remember such recriminations would seem to be beside the point. Something had to be adduced as the reason for the shift (temporary, it would now seem) to the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, their rapid fall from the nation's good graces seems to be due to an inability, once in power, to fully understand the ongoing crisis, or to develop adequate policies to deal with it, or to explain such limited successes as they may have achieved. Or to all of the above.

In any case, the election of 2010 is widely regarded as having reversed a long-standing political dictum attributed to the late Democratic speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who is alleged to have said, "All politics is local."

To an unprecedented degree, all politics in 2010 is almost indisputably national, with the trendlines evident in local races everywhere, especially in Tennessee, which had begun its turn against the Democrats even in the 2008 Year of Obama, when the GOP took over control of both houses of the Tennessee legislature.

The formula for Republican success in 2010 would seem to be based on confidence on voter amnesia (which became more pronounced the longer a strangely distanced Obama struggled unsuccessfully with his inherited problems), coupled with ritual incantations of two mantras: "Pelosi" and "Obamacare."

Though much of the odium attached to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as it was officially called, was based on misinformation (and much else on well-funded disinformation), there was a legitimate case to be made against the act.

It further enshrined insurance companies as the ultimate arbiters of health care, and the nation's governors dreaded its ultimate impact on their Medicaid budgets. (Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen's description of the act as "the mother of unfunded mandates" was quoted early on by nearly every Republican in the land.)

Still, the act contained enough genuine advances for most citizens — an immediate end to prior medical conditions as a basis for denying coverage, for example — that its immediate unpopularity remained mysterious, except, perhaps, as a symbolic instance of how widely suspect government in general had become.

And it remained an open question how much of the odium directed at Nancy Pelosi, the first woman ever to serve as speaker of the House, was the result not of the policies she favored but of her gender, her ethnic name, and her point of origin in San Francisco.

Among area Democrats, only Steve Cohen in the party's unchallengeable bastion of the 9th District would confidently embrace both the Democratic House leader and the president's signature policy initiative.

Others — notably Dresden state senator Roy Herron in Tennessee's 8th District and Travis Childers, the incumbent in Mississippi's 1st District — not only avoided trumpeting their party colors and took their own shots at the health-care plan, they tried to sound as Republican as possible.

Pelosi? Late in the game, Herron, who had campaigned on "fiscal solvency" and labeled himself "a truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy," was moved to throw her under the bus, labeling both her and her Republican counterpart, House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio, as "too extreme" and vowing to vote for neither one as speaker if elected. (In a chicken-and-egg scenario, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was meanwhile cutting off ads for Herron's race, which it deemed unwinnable.)

Childers went Herron one better, claiming nearly 300 instances of disobedience to his leader, who was — what else? — not only extreme but "out of touch." Childers slammed his Republican opponent, Alan Nunnelee, for raising taxes and boasted his own endorsements by the NRA, Right to Life, and a slew of conservative business organizations that normally go only for Republicans.

While Nunnelee did a ritual denunciation of "Obamacare," he did at least pay lip service to Medicare and Social Security, which was more than Blue Dog Childers could bring himself to do.

For all of this inversion, the polls had a relentless answer. Nunnelee, who was boosted toward the end by a visit from Boehner himself (campaigning district by district for the speakership), nursed a five-point lead. Herron's Republican foe Stephen Fincher, a newcomer to politics and a member of a prosperous Crockett County farming family locally famous for its gospel singing, led by nearly 10 points despite some questions regarding his campaign financing (significantly infused with national GOP money and with an apparently uncollateralized $250,000 bank loan) and his disinclination to face either the news media or his opponent directly.

There were — and are — arguments as to what extent the Tea Party phenomenon was midwifed into being in early 2009 by a conservative media (notably Fox News) and by Republicans determined to offset what was then still presumed to be a Democratic wave. But there was little doubt that by mid-2010 the Tea Party movement, helped along by fears of continuing unemployment and unending economic stagnation, had become a real force in Tennessee and elsewhere, with measurable grass roots sprouting amidst the Astroturf.

And, though its leaders and cadres alike pronounced calumny against both major parties, the movement's aversion to government per se made it a de facto ally, even an adjunct, of the GOP (which, ironically, it had begun to transform with primary challenges to traditional Republican candidates in state after state).

The bottom line, again, was that Republicans were ahead almost everywhere — certainly in Tennessee, which had been turning progressively redder over the last decade.

Even in Middle Tennessee's 4th congressional district, Democratic incumbent Lincoln Davis, arguably his party's most conservative member, who once famously vowed to let no opponent "out-gun me, out-pray me, or out-family me," was in a life-or-death race with a previously unknown physician, an émigré from the Dakotas named Scott DesJarlais.

Of Tennessee's congressional candidates, only Cohen, who both disdained and ignored his Republican opponent, an African-American Tea Partier named Charlotte Bergmann, seemed totally home free, and even Memphian Cohen has seen a mild surge for his opponent in the campaign's final weeks.

The tony thoroughfare of Walnut Grove, which had been dominated by Cohen yard signs during his summer primary romp over Willie Herenton, now boasts a mini-flood of Bergmann signs with the seemingly implausible slogan "Charlotte Bergmann Can Win."

The race in the adjoining 7th congressional district, a Republican bastion stretching from suburban Memphis to suburban Nashville, ran parallel — if inversely — to developments in the 9th. Incumbent GOP congresswoman Marsha Blackburn enjoyed a comfortable lead and mounted only a pro forma campaign against her Democratic opponent, Austin Peay political science professor Greg Rabidoux, who managed a plucky low-budget campaign and might have reaped something of a last-minute bounce, à la Bergmann in the 9th.

The real giveaway — in more senses than one — was the gubernatorial race, in which the winnowing down of a once-flourishing Democratic primary race from five candidates to one solitary sacrificial lamb, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of former Democratic governor Ned McWherter, had roughly paralleled the plummeting reputation of Democrats nationwide.

Bill Haslam, the attractive, likable, and hard-working two-term mayor of Knoxville, would have been a formidable candidate even in one of Tennessee's roughly balanced bellwether years. Wealthy himself and a scion of the powerful and prosperous Pilot Corporation, a bona fide international conglomerate, he had turned back two strong GOP opponents, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of the Tri-Cities area and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, and was an odds-on favorite in what was so clearly shaping up as a Republican year.

Though a decent man with good intentions, McWherter was a lackluster candidate — an elusive persona who, even as the campaign neared its end, was still making promises that Shelby County would get sick of seeing him so much when it had barely seen him at all.

And there was the question of disproportionate financing. Haslam, who has augmented record fund-raising receipts of nearly $10 million with significant cash outlays from his own fortune, could outspend McWherter at least five to one, totally dominating the state's media markets with what seemed a nonstop series of sunny, hagiographic TV ads.

Almost unnoticed was the fact that in three televised debates with Haslam, McWherter had at the very least held his own. Moreover, he had specific, if modest, ideas. Whereas the genial Haslam's platform seemed largely made of air, McWherter offered a plan, based on an Illinois precedent, of targeted tax breaks for small businesses.

Only once had the race shown signs of being possibly competitive. That was toward the end, when Haslam, a moderate on the 2nd Amendment issue (as on much else), let himself be bullied by a gun-rights group into indicating he would sign a bill abolishing carry permits in Tennessee if the legislature should pass one. Given its track record in the last two sessions, when it overwhelmingly legalized guns in bars and other public places, the General Assembly was likely to do just that.

Aside from the merits of the issue itself, the problem with Haslam's acquiescence was that it suggested a go-along-to-get-along fecklessness on his part, recalling primary foe Wamp's assertion that, while he could control the increasingly unruly Tennessee legislature, Haslam could not.

Even so, Haslam went into the final week of campaigning with a massive lead, reckoned in some quarters as nearing 20 points.

• Just as the hard-fought GOP gubernatorial primary, coupled with Republican crossover in the Cohen-Herenton race, had whetted the Republican vote in Shelby County in August, so now were Republican prospects bolstered by suburban resistance to a consolidation referendum on the county's November 2nd ballot.

The case for consolidation, meanwhile, was being made mainly by local business group interests concerned about competition elsewhere from what they saw as centralized and better organized metropolitan communities. They were aided by local advocacy groups and by such tireless activists for urban modernization as inveterate Smart City blogger Tom Jones.

The advocates of consolidation promised greater attention to ethics, equable taxation, a fair distribution of elective power countywide, and even a guarantee of continued sovereignty to the outer municipalities. Unconvinced suburbanites sniffed and called it spinach and were clearly determined to say the hell with it.

Worsening the Metro Charter's prospects was a revolt against consolidation by inner-city blacks — concerned, like people in the suburbs, about a diminution of their political power in an enlarged government. In part a natural development, the urban backlash was further fueled by the anger of disappointed African-American Democrats, who saw the impetus to consolidation in the same suspicious way in which they viewed the party's wipeout in the summer's county elections (though Chancellor Arnold Goldin had dismissed a lawsuit against an admittedly bumblesome Election Commission).

The status quo seemed undisturbed in down-ballot races. There were challenges on the ballot to legislative candidates here and there but none was likely to displace an incumbent, either Republican or Democratic. In municipal elections going on in Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown, the incumbents seemed equally well protected — especially insofar as they had used their positions to fight consolidation.

Two contested Memphis school board races attracted interest. Controversial incumbent Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. seemed capable of fending off challenges from Bob Morgan and a comeback-minded Richard Fields in the At Large, Position 2 race. And the District 6 race featured a six-candidate free-for-all, with former member Sara Lewis and longtime Democratic activist Cherry Davis hoping to wrest control from incumbent Sharon Webb.

Two ballot initiatives — one to restore non-staggered City Council terms and another toallow city employees to live within the boundaries of greater Shelby County — will resolve long-standing arguments in Memphis city government. So something will get settled on Tuesday!

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