Competition, questions shape Tennessee’s political landscape in pivotal election year

Tennessee lost its reputation as a pragmatic battleground state years ago (in fact, newcomers may not know its history) but this election could put it back into play.
Photo: Supporters of the gubernatorial candidates campaign outside a forum on April 17, 2018, at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn.

Illustrations by Ayumi Fukuda Bennett | @ayumibennett

With intriguing gubernatorial and senate elections at the top of the ticket in Tennessee, 2018 has the potential to provide something unexpected: Competition. It’s a curious situation many newcomers to the state’s politics are unfamiliar with and the contests are holding the undivided attention of observers and academics alike.

Long ago, Tennessee lost its reputation as a pragmatic battleground state, but with well-known and well-funded pro-business Democrats in the mix, the state is potentially in play following an extended era of GOP dominance, according to political scientists.

The governor’s race is as pivotal and insightful for Tennessee as the blockbuster campaign for U.S. Senate where former governor Phil Bredesen is dueling against U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tn., as the Democrats try to wrest one more Senate seat out of GOP control.

Voters rotated between two-term Democrats and Republicans in the governor’s mansion for four decades, so this governor’s race is a test of whether Republican dominance in state politics will break the cycle — in addition to the overarching question about whether a Democrat can win.

It’s also a glimpse into the stability and direction of the local GOP.

The people vying for governor:

  • Diane Black, Republican: U.S. Representative from Gallatin
  • Randy Boyd, Republican: former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development from Knoxville
  • Karl Dean, Democrat: former mayor of Nashville
  • Craig Fitzhugh, Democrat: state representative from Ripley in West Tennessee
  • Beth Harwell, Republican: Speaker of the Tennessee House representing Nashville
  • Bill Lee, Republican: Businessman from Williamson County

 “The future of the Republican Party is at stake,” Vanderbilt University’s John Geer said, adding that a November win for both Blackburn and Boyd would be a political split because it would put a “firebrand” in the federal seat and a more typical Tennessee conservative in the governorship.

Wins for Bredesen and Black would create an interesting dynamic with a Democrat in D.C. and a firebrand leading the state, Geer said. 

“It’s the (Howard) Baker wing or the firebrand wing,” said Geer, co-director of Vanderbilt Poll.

Tennessee’s political reputation is so defined by Republican politics that newcomers — or even the seasonal voter — aren’t aware the state was, until relatively recently, a regularly contested  state, said Vaughn May, chair of the political science department at Belmont University.

Republicans first showed their strength in the 1994 elections that captured both U.S. senate seats and the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush’s win in Al Gore’s home state helped deny Gore the White House. A brutal battle over a proposed state income tax paved the way for the GOP to eventually capture both houses of the state legislature with supermajorities. 

The loss emboldened the GOP, which is a coalition that spans a conservative spectrum, and weakened Democrats who were already struggling with changes in the political winds across the state, said May and MTSU’s Sekou Franklin.

Fast forward a decade and a half: the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide position since Bredesen’s last win in 2006. May, who recently penned a chapter on Tennessee’s political path for an anthology, said the state hasn’t been at play at the federal level since 2000.

“There’s a unique political history in Tennessee. This is a late partisan realignment that you’ve already seen in other states,” said Franklin, an associate professor who is finishing a book that will dig into how post-reconstruction alliances, and their eventual dissolution, delayed Tennessee’s stark partisanship.

Political rhetoric is more about guns, immigration and religion than the issues that impact people’s lives, but the fervor fires up the base in a way that platforms on education and health care don’t, said Geer. 

In the last three Republican presidential primaries, Tennessee went for Donald Trump, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

That the state’s politics are potentially swinging further to the right, is curious and concerning to Tom Ingram, a long-time communications and strategist fixture in GOP campaigns.  

“It’s really lopsided right now. Every race is either a further deterioration of our leadership or a step in the direction of more balanced political competition,” said Ingram. “I’m not to the place where I think it won’t swing back, but I never thought it would swing this far.”

‘The Republican race has blotted out the sun’

Many people tune into politics when the presidency is up for grabs but pay little attention to politics in-between.

There are, in fact, people who don’t know who is running for governor and intend to vote in November. Still, others don’t know an election is occurring this year, said May, also adding “Americans on politics are a semi-uneducated lot.”

That reality gets factored into campaigns as they try to win over local influencers — the chronic voters who go to meet-the-candidate events and later vouch for a candidate within their social circles. For some would-be voters, the first introduction to the prospective governors will be after the nominees are selected.

“Our media consumption habits are so personalized we define it ourselves and many people don’t include politics into that,” said Kati Bumgardner, vice president of operations for CounterPoint Messaging. “That’s why the (general election candidates) feel like they are polar opposites. They were picked by polar opposite people.”

Right now the Republican candidates — Black, Boyd, Harwell and Lee — are sparring for the small group of primary voters by aligning themselves with Trump in order to tap into his supporters.

» Dig In:  Tennessee’s gubernatorial hopefuls received 7 health care questions. Some answered.

Although there are differences between Dean and Fitzhugh, the Republican contest will be the loudest. The state’s midterm voters tend to be older, wealthier, and whiter — a demographic “natural built” for strength among Republicans, May said.

“Unfortunately for the Democrats, the Republican race has blotted out the sun,” said Pat Nolan, a political commentator for NewsChannel 5 and senior vice president at DVL Seigenthaler.

There’s energy around this election but Tennessee isn’t known for high voter turnout

Tennessee perennially ranks among the worst in the nation for voter turnout.

In the last two gubernatorial elections — in Tennessee they fall in federal mid-term election years — just under 30 percent of registered voters turned out in the primary. In the general elections, 41 percent voted in 2010 (Gov. Bill Haslam’s first win) and 36 percent voted in 2014 (Haslam’s re-election).

There is more energy around this midterm election than 2010 or 2014, said Franklin. 

Yet, there’s no Roy Moore-like scandal, political fringe candidates such as West Virginia’s Don Blankenship, or exciting political newcomers that are forcing people to pay attention.

It’s possible that a pro-business, social liberal can win as in other parts of the urban South — particularly if grassroots coalitions in African American communities can mobilize similarly to more mature coalitions in Georgia and Alabama, Franklin said.

There has been an influx of newcomers to the greater Nashville area since the last time Bredesen was elected, but neither strategists for campaigns on either side of the aisle are sure whether that will have an impact.

There’s been a net migration of 161,391 people to the greater Nashville area since 2010, and an overall population growth of more than 227,000 in that same time, according to data from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The voting history isn’t clear and there’s uncertainty about whether those people will head to the polls or what will influence their decision.

No one interviewed for this article expected a widespread blue wave across the state — although there could be a surge around Nashville, they said.

Nolan expects the U.S. Congress seats to keep the 7 to 2 split.

“I don’t see anyway both Democrats win but I also don’t think it’s likely the state will elect both Black and Blackburn,” said Ingram. “If Dean and Bredesen won that would suggest a shift in our politics.”

» Education, jobs, saving access to care: Governor candidates pitch strategies for sustaining rural Tennessee

The observers said that this year, more so than in the past, the winners will be a reflection of what’s fueling the state’s undercurrents.

“Can this new community of young Tennesseans influence national politics and perhaps shift Tennessee’s electoral landscape? Does all this growth matter,” said Franklin. “I’m curious to see if this very partisan right that we’ve seen across the country — if it’s going to work in Tennessee.”

Early voting for the primary runs July 13-28. The primary election is on Aug. 2, and the general election is on Nov. 6.

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