Politics » Politics Feature

GOP Tilt Holds in Tennessee

Republican presidential candidates were more in evidence in the run-up to voting; ripple effects from the 8th District race.



According to the Tennessee secretary of state's office in Nashville, a total of 385,653 Tennesseans, 43,000 of whom were Shelby Countians, cast ballots in the early-voting period that ran from February 10th to February 23rd.  

That's an early-voting record for the state and a 17.1 percent increase over the 2008 primaries in Tennessee, the last time that both parties had contested primaries on Super Tuesday.  

Some 257,209 early votes were cast statewide in the Republican primary, as against 128,374 in the Democratic primary. That's roughly a two-thirds tilt toward Republicans, a piece of math that would seem to coincide with the statewide shift of voter sentiment to the GOP in recent years — a trend that accelerated with the 2008 general election, when Republicans won a majority in the state House of Representatives to go with one already achieved in the Senate. 

Two years later, with then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam as their nominee, the Republicans won the governorship over Mike McWherter of Jackson.

The GOP edge in early-voting stats would also seem to reflect the disproportionate amount of time that Republican presidential candidates spent in Tennessee or adjacent areas. All five remaining Republican hopefuls — businessman Donald Trump, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and retired surgeon/author Dr. Ben Carson — made appearances in the state in the run-up to this week's primary.

Kasich, Trump, and Carson were all in Memphis on get-out-the-vote business this past weekend — Kasich for a well-attended town hall at the Central Avenue Holiday Inn on Friday, Trump for one of his patented monster rallies at the Millington Jetport hangar on Saturday, and Carson for a round of visits to churches and a local veterans' service center on Sunday.

Active headquarters operations are up and running — within a block of each other on Poplar in Midtown — for the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

But only Clinton visited Memphis in the course of her campaign, appearing at LeMoyne-Owen College for a rally last November and speaking at two local churches — Greater Imani Church and Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church — this past Sunday. Husband Bill Clinton, the former president, addressed a large crowd at Whitehaven High School last month on his wife's behalf.

Sanders has been rumored as coming to Memphis once or twice but has not yet shown. The senator had also been scheduled for a visit to Tennessee State University in Nashville in January but evidently changed his plans and was represented there by campaign aide Matt Kuhn of Memphis, among others.


• As expected, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant 8th District congressional seat. The mayor's bid, which was not unexpected, was announced at a Reagan Day dinner of Madison County Republicans in Jackson on Monday night.

Luttrell instantly becomes one of the favorites in the GOP primary field, which also includes state Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, Shelby County Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar, former county commissioner and radiologist/broadcast executive George Flinn, and former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff.

While the field of Republican contenders proliferates for the seat now held by Stephen Fincher of Crockett County, who has chosen not to run for reelection, the field of  Democrats has not developed in kind.

Shelby County assistant District Attorney Michael McCusker had indicated an interest in running as a Democrat but late last week bowed out, saying, "Simply put, I do not believe I can properly balance both the demands of my career and my family life with a campaign of this magnitude."

Luttrell's race is good news for Shelby County Commission chairman Terry Roland, who, in something of a ripple effect, would become interim County Mayor should Roland still be chairman if Luttrell wins the congressional race and has to resign his mayoralty in January 2017. That circumstance would require that Roland's colleagues elect him to a second straight term as chairman this September, a real possibility for someone with his deal-making and arm-twisting skills.

Whoever gets to be interim mayor (for a charter-mandated 45 days) would have a leg up when the County Commission then chooses someone to serve out the balance of Luttrell's term.

There is an irony in that fact, in that the mayor and the chairman have been seriously at odds for months over issues relating to which branch of county government should have priority over the other. Conflicts have raged over matters ranging from the reliability of the administration's accounting statistics to the issue of whether the commission is entitled to have its own attorney.

But there has clearly been a thaw in their relations of late. Luttrell told the Flyer last week that Roland was one of the people he consulted in advance of his decision to make the congressional race. 

And at the Shelby County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day banquet the weekend before last, the mayor, speaking from the dais, threw a verbal bouquet Roland's way, calling him a "great chairman." The mayor coupled that with a similar grace note for GOP Commissioner Heidi Shafer, Roland's ally in the procedural wars with Luttrell.

Just as Roland, who has planned a race for County Mayor in 2018, might profit from a Luttrell victory in the congressional race, so would Shafer's ambitions gain from a win by another congressional candidate, state Senator Kelsey.

Shafer, who served two consecutive terms as Commission budget chair, raised eyebrows last fall when she opted to shift to the chairmanship of the legislative affairs committee. But the change, she confided, was in line with her intent to run for the legislature at the soonest feasible opportunity. A Kelsey win for Congress, and his subsequent departure from his Senate seat, would occasion a special election and give her that opportunity.

Roland, incidentally, is in line for a possible serendipity in yet another political lottery. He has become West Tennessee chairman of the Trump campaign and was principal organizer of Trump's giant rally in Millington last weekend. Whatever the local dividends might be from a Trump victory, either in the nomination process or for the presidency itself, Roland would likely be first in line to receive them.

• Bills relating to criminal justice are getting good play during the current legislative session in Nashville. Students from Soulsville in Memphis were on Tuesday's schedule to testify in a hearing before the house Criminal Justice subcommittee on a bill — HB 2483, sponsored by Representative Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) — that would reduce fees  to have criminal records expunged after successful completion of a pretrial diversion program.

Also to be heard by the subcommittee were HB2370, which would increase penalties for assaults against correctional officers, and HB2043, which would eliminate penalties for persons substituting prayer for a child's medical or surgical treatment.

"There have to be ramifications for what people do and say, or else they're going to continue to do whatever they want. It's very hard for us, like I'm sure [for] Memphis and Nashville, because we make decisions worried about whether the state is going to come in and overrule them. It's hard to run a city that way. ... Look at Nashville; for better or worse, the voters adopted an amendment about local hire, and, like it or hate it, two weeks later the state overrules it. ...We've got to change the people." — Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, at a reception at the Henry Turley Company in Memphis, on the need to overhaul the membership of the current legislature.

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