Politics » Politics Feature

Post Mortems

Why the Republicans won and what it bodes for the future.



It is hard to remember now, in the wake of a new Republican sweep of countywide races, but it has only been a relatively short time — November 2009, to be exact — since Shelby County Republican chairman Lang Wiseman counseled his GOP brethren that it was time to drop the very idea of partisan primaries in countywide elections.

Looking back to the election of August 2008 when the Republicans lost all three of the county races on the ballot — trustee, assessor, and General Sessions clerk — Wiseman told a meeting of East Shelby Republicans, "I'm not convinced that the primary system does work for us. It makes it harder to get crossover votes. There are a lot of places in the county that you don't want to go and say you're a Republican."

Another vocal disbeliever in primaries at that meeting was Bill Giannini, the current Election Commission chairman and Wiseman's predecessor as county GOP chair. "Shame on us for initiating those ... and now we are left with that albatross," Giannini bemoaned.

Until such time as Republicans could get out from under, however, Wiseman suggested working hard to get hard-core Republicans out "at the top of the ballot" and going after "Democrat crossover votes."

With the impressive figure of Sheriff Mark Luttrell finally talked into heading the ticket in 2010, the GOP would get its votes at the top of the ballot and down the ballot, too — thanks in large part to the aforesaid Democrat crossover votes.

The result was beyond the kind of reprieve being discussed last November, and it would not be surprising if Wiseman and Giannini should decide to discard their pessimistic outlook of last year in favor of a resolve to keep on keeping on with the primary system.

The fact is, however, that neither has changed his mind about the need to return county elections to the nonpartisan basis on which they were conducted before the early 1990s (when, in fact, it was the GOP that decided to initiate the primary system).

Both look back to the two parties' May primaries of this year and observe with some horror their disproportionate expense. "It cost the taxpayers a million dollars to have them, and I don't think it's fair at all for 90 percent of the population to pay that much for something than only 10 percent turned out for this year," Giannini says.

Both are convinced, too, that the Democrats were handicapped by having candidates on the ballot who had name recognition enough to win a scantily attended primary but a notoriety that went with it which would turn out to be fatal in a general election. Though both also believe the Republican slate was superior to the Democrats' this year, neither believes the GOP is immune to the same fateful paradox.

"Two years from now, or four years from now, it could be our turn to come up with losers," Wiseman says.

• One of the reasons adduced for the Republicans doing so well in Shelby County has been the hotly contested three-way gubernatorial primary between Republicans Bill Haslam, Zach Wamp, and Ron Ramsey. True enough, and this generated much of the GOP turnout, while the Democrats had no governor's race at all.

Jackson businessman Mike McWherter was the last man standing from a field that once contained five competitors. All of them save McWherter dropped out or found other races to run after yelling into a vacuum — for more than a year in some cases — and getting no echoes.

Which is to say, it may be more appropriate to see the live-wire Republican gubernatorial primary as effect rather than cause. There was a reason why the Democrats could not sustain a contest. In the words of one of the dropouts, "Where there used to be yellow-dog Democrats out there, there are now yellow-dog Republicans."

The likelihood is that, statewide, Republicans, who won the state legislature in 2008, will continue to control it, in two years' time, after the current census has been entered into the record and will be able to reapportion the state's legislative and congressional districts to suit themselves.

Meanwhile, Haslam, the GOP gubernatorial nominee and, as such, the newly established head of his state party, is declining to sound the note of partisanship. This is not squeamishness. It is good politics. And statecraft. On Monday morning of this week, the victor in the Republican Party stopped at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn on Central Avenue as part of a post-primary state flyaround.

During the campaign, Knoxville mayor Haslam avoided the ideological extremes of Lieutenant Governor Ramsey, whose campaign amounted to an expression of almost total governmental laissez-faire, and Chattanooga congressman Wamp, whose impressive visionary moments were unfortunately mixed in, especially late in the game, with quixotic-sounding speculations about possible "separation" from the federal government.

By contrast, Haslam's positions were soft, even undefined. At the Holiday Inn on Monday, he was asked if he considered himself a "moderate." His answer was that no, he was "pragmatic," and that was something different. He had already given some clue as to what he meant when, for the first time, he floated the idea of giving "autonomy" to the University of Memphis — an idea that District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who had introduced him Monday and was standing alongside, had espoused during his own short-lived gubernatorial campaign.

The fall campaign, matching Haslam against Democratic nominee McWherter, has yet to be run, but the Democrat, an amiable man and as of yet an unknown quantity to the electorate, has his work cut out for him.

First indications are that McWherter will attempt some version of a populist approach against "oil man" Haslam, a scion of the Pilot Oil conglomerate whose personal wealth and fund-raising ability were large factors in his victory. A similar approach by Wamp fell short in the GOP primary, but that, of course, was a different constituency.

• High Republican turnout was certainly one of the factors in the GOP's decisive local victory on August 5th. The mammoth GOP turnout even accounted — via some much ballyhooed crossover — for a good deal of Congressman Steve Cohen's four-to-one margin over former Mayor Willie Herenton in the 9th District Democratic primary. The other major factor was suppressed black Democratic turnout.

It was no secret that the Democrats needed a 60 percent Democratic primary turnout to feel comfortable. By dint of some last-minute effort, they were able to get their percentage of early voting up to 56 percent. But they also needed a major effort on Election Day to close the rest of the gap, and it would seem that they were outdone by the Republicans on Thursday.

The falloff in the African-American vote was just modest enough, given a highly galvanized GOP effort, to determine the outcome.

And what happened? First, there was no one candidate or cause that could focus an intense countywide (or citywide or district-wide) effort involving blacks up and down the social constellation — certainly not Herenton with an underfunded erratic effort based on a slogan — "Just One" — that presupposed the existence of a barrier that had vanished long ago.

Here's the reality: After Harold Ford Sr.'s congressional victory in 1974 and Herenton's mayoral triumph in 1991, African Americans in Memphis have been well aware that they can elect one of their own any time they choose. It was their call, not whites', to reject Nikki Tinker and elect Cohen so overwhelmingly in 2008. In that context, Herenton's slogan was both irrelevant and insulting.

Arguably, both the white and black populations are now performance-oriented, above all.

It was apparently clear to the blacks of the 9th District that Cohen had been something of a whiz in Congress and that he had crossed the t's and dotted the i's that mattered to them. All other things being equal, they might have come out for Herenton. Things weren't equal. Cohen was a force. Herenton's very campaign was a riddle never answered, and his mayoral regime was remembered, correctly, as having run out of gas.

So African-American voting was at comfort level. Meanwhile, recession-weary Tea Party whites, driven by resentments even they could not precisely name, came out to the polls to make their statement, such as it was, choosing the Republicans, the self-proclaimed party of "less government, lower taxes," as their medium.

• The first precondition for last Thursday's Republican sweep of countywide positions was likely laid in February when Luttrell — a popular, respected public figure who had always polled well across the racial and political divides — was cajoled (or cajoled himself) into a change of mind about seeking the Shelby County mayoral position.

Until that point, local Republicans were inclined to be somewhere between fatalistic and desperate about their chances in the countywide general election. Not only had Shelby County's population tipped over to an African-American majority — a key to Democratic dominance, especially considering there was still an extant corps of white Democrats — but the August 2008 election had seen Democrats sweep all three of the county positions then on the ballot: assessor, trustee, and General Sessions clerk.

But, buoyed by a favorable poll conducted by veteran consultant John Bakke with Ethridge and Associates, Luttrell agreed to run for mayor and gave the headless party a top of the ticket.

The Democrats had one, too, with interim Mayor Joe Ford's victory over an underfunded county commissioner Deidre Malone in the May primary. But, though the interim mayor could legitimately claim later on that he had done a "great job" as the county's chief executive, he could never divest himself of the onus of having gone back on a pledge to his then fellow commissioners, rendered as a condition of their naming him interim mayor, not to seek a regular term as mayor.

The problem was more general than any shortcomings associated with the local Democratic slate, and it transcended even the later allegations that white Democrats — a declining breed — were motivated to apostasy by concerns, expressed or unexpressed, having to do with race. (Not to debunk the idea, but Regina Newman, arguably an exemplary trustee, went down to defeat with the rest of the Democrats, despite being every bit as white as her opponent, while first-timer Paul Boyd, a black Republican candidate for Probate Court clerk, was a winner along with his white running mates.)

Newman and Criminal Court clerk candidate Minerva Johnican, as two Democrats whose margins of defeat were relatively small, became the de facto plaintiffs in an injunction sought by local Democratic chairman Van Turner to stay the election results from being certified.

After a preliminary hearing before Chancellor Walter Evans on Monday, Turner and John Ryder, counsel for the Election Commission, agreed to cooperate on investigating the Election Day "glitch" that saw early-voting results from an earlier election, apparently the May primary, fed into the countywide voter roll. The result, says Turner, was that more than 5,000 voters may have been at least temporarily impeded from voting last Thursday.

Giannini and Election Commission director Rich Holden countered that the glitch was fixed early on and the affected number of voters was far less than that and, in fact, minimal. They called District Attorney Gibbons to look into the matter, and Gibbons called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Democrats will have an opportunity to challenge the results after formal certification on August 19th.

• But again, the problem may be more general: Observe the new TV ads, effective in their way, produced for gubernatorial nominee McWherter and Roy Herron, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 8th District. You will look in vain for any use of the word "Democrat" as a signifier.

McWherter presents himself as a problem-solver, a Mr. Fixit, while Herron, who is up against ultra-Tea Partier Republican Stephen Fincher, might be taken for a Republican himself. He describes himself as a "truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy." He opposes "bailouts" and "bad trade deals like NAFTA," and he has previously named "fiscal insolvency" as the country's foremost problem. All that is lacking is the ritual denunciations of the names "Obama" and "Pelosi" that his opponent is sure to employ.

It is worth remembering the argument of linguistic philosopher George Lakoff, in his various treatises on the "framing" of ideological debates: namely, that adopting the memes and code words of the opposition reinforces the opposition, not oneself, and defaults on the obligation to present an alternate vision or version of reality.

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