The pending visit to Nashville and Memphis this week of Hillary Clinton is for Tennessee Democrats a poignant reminder of a time — not that long ago — when the Democratic Party counted for something statewide and could boast real political power.
In the 2007-2008 election cycle, when Clinton, then still serving as a U.S. senator from New York, made her first run for president, she did so in an environment in which her party was still the predominant political force in Tennessee.
The governor, Phil Bredesen, was a Democrat. So was the long-serving speaker of the state House of Representatives, Jimmy Naifeh of Covington. He presided over a body that had been majority-Democrat since Reconstruction, save for a momentary blip in the '70s, and whose power was so unquestioned and his favors so sought-after that he could always boast a solid corps of minority Republican votes for his speakership.
The state Senate was technically divided between Democrats and Republicans, with 16 members each, but the lone Senate independent, Micheal Williams of Maynardville, was a former Republican who had become accustomed to voting with the Democrats — a serious crimp upon the power of Republican speaker and ipso facto lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey. His ousting in 1977 of longtime Democratic Speaker John Wilder had owed as much to members' reaction to Wilder's superannuated state as to a real shift in their politics.
The state's congressional delegation in Washington was divided, with a majority of the state's House members being Democratic, while Tennessee's U.S. senators were both Republicans. The party affiliation of the state's senators had, however, fluctuated with some regularity since the mid-1960s in keeping with Tennessee's status as a bellwether state, reliably reflecting shifts in party dominance between Republicans and Democrats, but with a default bias in favor of the latter.
As the 2008 presidential cycle began to heat up in 2007, there seemed little reason to believe that any major shift in the political balance of power was in the offing for Tennessee. If anything, the Democrats' national successes in the off-year elections of 2006 — when Memphis Democrat Harold Ford Jr. had been narrowly defeated by Chattanooga Republican Bob Corker in a Senate race — still resonated.
And in a post-Katrina environment, with the Iraq War having long since become unpopular, sentiment in Tennessee as elsewhere had seemingly turned against the administration of the Republican President George W. Bush. In advance of the 2008 primary season proper, Hillary Clinton, wife of a still popular ex-president from a neighboring Southern state, had sufficient magnetism all by herself to hold in common cause a specific mass of Democratic regulars.
In rural West and Middle Tennessee, the ancestral Democratic networks of county executives, local officials, and legislators still held sway, and widely admired former Governor Ned McWherter was a Clinton enthusiast. So was Memphis' African-American mayor, Willie Herenton. Nashville, then as now the reservoir of what had once been a solid Democratic South, was virtually all-out for Hillary.
Even after the unexpected surge of Barack Obama's presidential campaign that drew to his cause such party bellwethers as congressmen Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville, the Hillary coalition held. On Super Tuesday of 2008, Clinton won Tennessee with 54 percent of the vote, uniting statewide party allegiances with national ones.
The Republican winner on Super Tuesday in Tennessee that year was former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a more purely regional phenomenon whose early strength in the Iowa caucuses could not be replicated on a national scale. Huckabee later narrowly lost the pivotal South Carolina primary to John McCain.
The vintage cry of Democrats in the South, contrariwise, had always been based on professions of loyalty "from courthouse to White House," alternately "from precinct to President." A significant number of Tennessee Democrats were "Blue Dogs," committed to an ambiguously moderate-to-conservative tradition of government, and the Clintons had good working relations with them.
"The party, as a working statewide organization with roots in the population and with an active and functioning political leadership was still intact in Tennessee," observes Memphis Democrat David Cocke, a former party chairman with long-standing ties to Democratic Party groups elsewhere in the state. "Hillary embodied all that."
As Cocke sees it, there was no intrinsic reason why, with local party organizations and the state Democratic establishment working in tandem with a national ticket headed by Hillary Clinton, the traditional alliance could not have worked again in 2008, as it had with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and with Bill Clinton in his two races.
Moreover, the suspenseful competition between Hillary Clinton and Obama had inflated Democratic energies overall. The eloquent and charismatic Obama had stirred the fancy not only of his fellow African Americans but of professionals and young people in general.
But Obama, once triumphant as Democratic Party nominee in 2008, allocated his resources not along the lines of the "50-state" theory of national Democratic Chairman Howard Dean, but in accordance with an electoral-college math that focused on Northern and Midwestern swing states. Tennessee got correspondingly little in the way of attention or funding from the Obama campaign, and the cohesion between the national campaign and statewide and local Democratic efforts was virtually non-existent.
Tennessee went for GOP nominee McCain in the general election, and a late campaign visit by the Republican nominee to Bristol, Virginia, has been credited with influencing a Republican legislative win across the state line that would give Republicans a surprise majority in the Tennessee state House.
From that point on, Democratic Party fortunes in Tennessee waned dramatically. Though the case can be made that Obama's presidency proceeded along relatively moderate lines, some connection between the Democratic Party and its traditional adherents in Tennessee had been severed, and Tennessee, in successive election years beginning in 2010, joined the rest of the South, veering dramatically in the direction of Republican dominance.
State government is now totally in Republican hands, with the GOP possessing legislative super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The Tennessee which Hillary Clinton (who seems certain to be her party's nominee for president next year) will visit this week is by now almost completely divested of the Democratic Party infrastructure that it possessed in 2008. Returning it to the party fold electorally — or even making it competitive —will be a serious challenge indeed.
In any case, here she comes. Longtime Clinton retainer James Carville headed up a successful Memphis fund-raiser for her in August, and members of Clinton's campaign team were in town last week, scouting out locations for her visit on Friday and working out arrangements with local liaisons. Particulars were to be announced by mid-week.
• By the end of Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission may — or may not — have come to some closure of at least one phase of its ongoing power struggle with the administration of County Mayor Mark Luttrell. The commission is scheduled to adjourn midway of its normal committee sessions in order to consider an override of a Luttrell veto.
Luttrell has exercised his veto in relation to a previous commission vote to appoint former Commissioner Julian Bolton as an independent attorney serving the commission in the same manner that lawyer Allan Wade serves the Memphis City Council. County Attorney Ross Dyer has ruled that the County Charter prohibits such an appointment, and last week saw a flurry of informal legal opinions on both sides.