Wednesday, December 02, 2009

West Tennessee Open Seat Creates More Ground For the Democrats to Defend

Well, it looks as if we might have been on to something in the last post. Yesterday brought word that one of the members I highlighted, Tennessee Democrat John Tanner (8th District), was announcing his retirement from Congress. While fear of electoral defeat does not appear to be the overriding factor in his decision making (he contemplated stepping down after his previous term despite the fact that he would ultimately run unopposed), his 2010 campaign was shaping up to be pretty daunting with his top challenger already having banked over $300,000 in campaign contributions.

Tanner has long been a leader of the House Blue Dogs and represents a rural chunk of western Tennessee. While west Tennessee has historically been the more Democratic part of the state, it has been trending Republican in recent cycles. John McCain garnered 56% last year while Bush received 53% in 2004. Native son Al Gore narrowly won the 8th with 51% in 2000. To expand a bit on the interesting geographic/partisan divisions of the Volunteer State, here's a bit from "The Transformation of Southern Politics":

The politics of contemporary Tennessee have their roots in the Civil War. The state rejected the Confederacy until after the fall of Fort Sumter and after President Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops. For almost a century after the Civil War, Tennessee politics remained frozen by the state's division in that conflict...Much of Middle Tennessee and most of west Tennessee was plantation country, but the mountainous East was dominated by small farmers who found slavery unprofitable and who rejected the notion that it was a divinely ordained institution.

The modern day 8th district is from that part of the state that supported secession and clung to its Democratic loyalties for generations. Thus, there is little history of GOP success in the region and it will be interesting to see whether the Democrats (who may push forward a credible candidate in State Senator and current gubenatorial candidate Roy Herron) are able to draw upon these longstanding loyalties and maintain control of the seat. Republican hopes lie in the fact that the district includes wealthier suburban areas of both Memphis and Nashville. Should the currently hypothesized "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic and GOP voters continue into next year, this could be where the race is won. Democrats, in addition to relying on history and tradition, have been able to draw upon the large African American population of the district--currently 22%. Their turnout will be crucial to preventing this district from flipping to the GOP for the first time since Reconstruction.

While I won't predict the outcome of next year's race, here's one thing that wouldn't surprise me. Congressman Tanner currently chairs the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. If President Obama, as has been reported, pivots from the current focus on health care to a focus on long term deficits and entitlement reform, expect Tanner to be tapped as a member of an entitlement reform commission charged with creating recommendations for Congress.

**An interesting bit of trivia: the city of Jackson in the southern part of the district is the home of the only Pringles production facility in the U.S. due to the local abundance of cotton seed oil. Who knew?