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Tennessee Politics: From Boss Crump to Howard Baker to . . . Marsha Blackburn?


— The nomination of now-Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) for Tennessee’s open-seat Senate race last year represented a rightward shift for state Republicans.

— Blackburn’s clear victory over former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) last year means the GOP is well-positioned to hold another open Senate seat being contested next year.

Tennessee’s rightward shift, and its implications

Only one chapter in V.O. Key’s classic 1949 book Southern Politics in State and Nation named an individual in its title: “Tennessee: The Civil War and Mr. Crump.”

Key described an era in Tennessee history when the Democratic primary decided who controlled statewide politics and Memphis political boss E.H. Crump — whose organization reigned longer than any other urban political machine in the 20th century — decided who would win the Democratic primary.

Key illustrated Crump’s power by recounting the political fate of one Gordon Browning.

In 1936, Browning was elected governor with Crump’s backing and the votes of 59,874 citizens of Memphis and surrounding Shelby County. Once in office, Browning fell out with Crump, who said of him that “in the art galleries of Paris there are twenty-seven pictures of Judas Iscariot — none look alike but all resemble Gordon Browning.”

When Browning ran for reelection in 1938, his vote count in Memphis and Shelby County was 9,315. Needless to say, he lost. Crump’s reputation as both a classic king maker and a Game of Thrones-style king slayer was secure.

The “civil war” — the other half of Key’s chapter title — was the source of Tennessee’s Democratic dominance. It also described another anomaly of the state’s politics: not “one one-party system,” as in all the other states of the solidly Democratic South, but “two one-party systems,” with the Republican descendants of Tennessee’s antebellum anti-secessionists just as strong in mountainous East Tennessee as the Democrats were in more populous Middle and West Tennessee. Alone among the U.S. House districts in the South, for example, the Second Congressional District has elected an unbroken string of Republicans since 1867, and the First District has done so since 1880.

Crump’s death in 1954 was preceded by his loss of statewide power in 1948, when he supported Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, who received only 13% of Tennessee’s vote, and incumbent Sen. Tom Stewart, who lost the Democratic primary to a reformer, Estes Kefauver.

Kefauver’s election marked the beginning of a seven-decade long era, only now ending, in which Tennessee consistently produced leaders of national political stature. These included Kefauver, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1956, and Al Gore, who was elected vice president in 1992 and 1996 and headed the Democratic ticket in the 2000 presidential election.

Tennessee’s Republicans were, if anything, even more distinguished. Howard Baker was the Senate’s GOP leader from 1977 to 1985, as was Bill Frist from 2003 to 2007. Bill Brock refashioned the Republican National Committee into an unprecedentedly effective electoral force as party chair from 1977 to 1981. Until this year, Bob Corker chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, pending his retirement in 2020, Lamar Alexander — a former governor and U.S. secretary of education — heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Since the Crump era, Tennessee’s partisan hue has changed from bluish (never deep blue) through the 1950s to purple in the 1960s and 1970s to reddish in the 1980s and 1990s to red ever since. The state remained competitive in presidential elections until 2000, when Texas Republican George W. Bush carried it against Gore. (Arguably, the loss of his home state, not Florida, is what cost Gore the presidency.) In 2016, however, Tennessee gave Donald Trump his second-largest majority in the South, behind only Alabama.

Tennessee’s long migration from bluish to red — even scarlet — can be seen at a glance. As recently as 2010, its U.S. House delegation was still, with brief interludes, narrowly Democratic. Now it is solidly 7-2 Republican — not a single district has been rated as even mildly competitive in years. The same could be said of the state legislature until 2008, when it swung Republican. Now the GOP dominates the state Senate 28-5 and the state House 74-25. Starting in the late 1970s, Tennessee alternated every eight years like clockwork between two-term Democratic governors and two-term Republican governors. That pattern came to an end in 2018, when Republican Bill Lee was easily elected to succeed Republican Bill Haslam.

What’s become clear recently is that these two post-Crump era trends — Tennessee’s record of producing national political leaders and its march toward the Republican Party — are in tension with each other. The reason lies in the source of the GOP’s new advance: the conversion of previously Democratic rural conservative voters into Republicans, a trend that favors the elevation of statewide officials who are too right-wing to cross over into national political prominence.

To illustrate this tension, let’s explore the 2018 Senate election to replace the retiring Corker and look ahead to the 2020 election to replace Alexander, who announced last month that he plans to leave office after three terms.

A moderate conservative in the Baker-Brock-Frist-Alexander tradition, Corker served as mayor of Chattanooga before being first elected to the Senate in 2006 against a strong Democratic opponent, Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

In familiar Republican fashion, Corker carried all of East Tennessee — both its two main cities, Knoxville and Chattanooga, and its rural counties — by 118,000 votes. Ford, an African American who championed his cross-racial conservative credentials as “a Jesus-loving, gun-supporting believer that family should come first, that taxes should be lowered, and that America should be strong,” prevailed in the state’s two largest urban counties, Davidson (Nashville) in Middle Tennessee and Shelby (Memphis) in West Tennessee, by 115,000 votes. Corker won the election because of his strength in the suburban counties that ring Nashville and run north and east of Memphis. Yet even in losing to Corker by less than three percentage points, Ford won 29 rural counties in the western two-thirds of the state.

Corker was reelected when the Democrats essentially conceded the contest to him in 2012, allowing a marginal figure whom the Washington Post called “2012’s worst candidate” to emerge from their primary. After the 2016 election, even though Trump had won the state’s GOP presidential primary by 14 points and defeated Hillary Clinton by 26 points in the general election, Corker made the same assumption that most Republican members of Congress did at the time — namely, that to the extent he separated himself from the president, his constituents would side with him, not Trump.

That may have been true among Tennessee’s total electorate — and probably would have been true among the Republican primary electorate of decades past. But the GOP’s base was no longer confined to East Tennessee and the Nashville and Memphis suburbs. By 2016, it included every rural county in the state except small, majority-black Haywood County, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis.

In 2017, Corker emerged as a leading critic of the president, describing the White House as an “adult day care center” and Trump as lacking the “stability” and “competence that he needs.” Corker soon found that in doing so he alienated so many Tennessee Republican voters that he might well lose a primary to Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a devoted Trump supporter. Aware that Alexander had won only a nine-point primary victory against a much less prominent challenger, state Rep. Joe Carr, in 2014, Corker announced his retirement in late September. Blackburn became the GOP’s uncontested choice to succeed him.

Democrats rallied with equal unity behind their most recent governor, Phil Bredesen. In securing reelection in 2006, the popular Bredesen had carried all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. In a real sense, though, the selection of the 74-year-old ex-governor, who had been out of politics for eight years, was a sign of how diminished the party was by 2018. Bredesen was, after all, the only Democrat to have won a statewide election in more than a quarter-century.

Bredesen ran a center-right campaign, stressing repeatedly that “if President Trump is offering something that I think is good for the people of Tennessee, I’ll be there. Conversely, if he’s proposing something which I think is not, I won’t.” His strategy was to pursue the remnant of Corker-style Republican voters — by, for example, endorsing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and the Trump administration’s deregulatory policies — while taking Democratic support for granted. “I’m in the fortunate position,” Bredesen told the New York Times, “that people on the left are enraged enough that they will find almost anything I do, with a D after my name, acceptable.”

The strategy didn’t work. Blackburn lashed herself to Trump, who told his supporters that “a vote for Marsha is really a vote for me.” She tied her opponent to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, despite Bredesen’s declaration that he would vote against Schumer’s reelection as leader.

On Election Day, Bredesen and Blackburn each won more than 90% of their party’s self-identifiers, but a greater share of the electorate was Republican (44%) than Democratic (25%). The only reason Bredesen was able to hold Blackburn’s victory margin down to 11 points was that the 31% of voters who identified as independent gave him 55% of their votes.

In a modest countertrend to the Republicanization of Tennessee’s rural counties, its two main cities have become more Democratic. Although Bredesen ran eight points behind Ford’s overall margin in 2006, his margin of victory in Shelby (Memphis) was six points greater than Ford’s. In Davidson (Nashville), it was 20 points greater.

Blackburn is a freshman senator in 2019. Alexander will retire after completing his 18th year in the Senate in 2020 despite telling the Washington Post in an end-of-the-year interview that “I actually like defeating evil forces where I can find them in politics,” referring to the possibility of a hardline conservative challenge to his renomination.

What kind of senators will they be in the 116th Congress?

There can be little doubt that Blackburn will dance with the one that brung her. She ran as and almost certainly will be a staunch devotee of all things Trump.

Less clear is how Alexander will conduct himself on his way out. For as long as he kept open the possibility of running again in 2020, Alexander was a steady supporter of the president whom his Republican constituents adore. But was he a happy one?

In 2019 and 2020, Alexander is free to be exactly the kind of senator he wants to be. Some of his longtime associates expect him to break with Trump on multiple issues — perhaps even vote to remove the president from office if the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives triggers a Senate trial by impeaching him on credible grounds.

The coming year will also see the field form in both parties for the open-seat election to replace Alexander in 2020.

So far at least, the Democratic roster is shaping up to include state Sen. Sara Kyle, who represents Memphis’ 30th district; Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke; state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville; and James Mackler, the Nashville lawyer and Beto O’Rourke wannabe who backed out of the 2018 Senate contest when Bredesen got in.

Republican interest has centered on outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, former congresswoman and defeated Republican gubernatorial primary aspirant Diane Black, former state Economic and Development Commission chair and current ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, Rep. David Kustoff, and true-blue Trumpite Mark Green, who only now is beginning the term in Congress to which he was just elected for the first time.

Haslam is the best-known candidate in the field, but he may choose not to run in 2020 for the same reason he decided not to seek his party’s nomination to replace Corker in 2018: the widespread sense that no one from the Baker-spawned line of moderates he comes from can secure a majority of Republican primary votes in the new political era. His best hope if he does run is that several other candidates focus their campaigns on Trump supporters and Trump decides not to anoint any one of them. In that case, Haslam could slip through with a plurality.

In terms of the partisan outcome of the 2020 Senate election, does it matter who the parties nominate? Probably not.

In Tennessee last year, the Democrats nominated their best possible candidate for senator, the Republicans nominated a flawed one, and the Republican won handily — just not as handily as Republicans usually win. It’s hard to imagine any Democrat beating any Republican in 2020.

Michael Nelson is Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. His latest book is Trump: The First Two Years, published in January 2019 by the University of Virginia Press.