Capitol View Commentary: Friday, November 5, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, November 5, 2010

CREATED Nov 5, 2010


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

November 5, 2010


It was a Tennessee election Tuesday night that produced results beyond the wildest expectations of any Republican, and the worst nightmares of any Democrat. The good news for the members of the GOP: They now control it all politically in Tennessee. That's the bad news too, if things don't go well. For the Democrats, the Party is now so low in the state, the bottom looks like up…and that's before redistricting!

Election 2010 concludes a 44 year-odyssey that began way back in 1966 when Howard Baker, Jr. upset incumbent Governor Frank Clement to win the first statewide race for the modern-day Tennessee Republican Party. How appropriate that former Senator and Majority Leader Baker was the honorary chair for Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam's gubernatorial race as he won a smashing statewide victory, garnering almost 65% of the vote and carrying at least 90 of Tennessee's 95 counties, one of the biggest political victories ever for an open seat (no incumbent) governor's race in the Volunteer State.

The Republican quest for state dominance continued when during a brief period in the late 1960s it controlled the State House and elected Bill Jenkins as Speaker (with the help of an independent lawmaker). Then came the first big breakthrough in 1970 when Winfield Dunn came out of Memphis to become the first Republican Governor in 50 years while Bill Brock beat Albert Gore, Sr. to allow the GOP to hold both of Tennessee's seats in the U.S. Senate.

For the next couple of decades the parties traded gubernatorial and senatorial victories. Meanwhile the Democrats, under then House Speaker (later Governor Ned McWherter) and Lt. Governor John Wilder, built huge majorities in the General Assembly. Democrats also still held most of the state's congressional seats.

Then came 1994, when as a part of the national Republican Revolution, the Tennessee GOP captured the governor's chair (Don Sundquist), both Senate seats (Bill Frist &  Fred Thompson) and three U.S. House seats (Zach Wamp, Ed Bryant & Van Hilleary). Taking over the Tennessee General Assembly remained a more difficult task, even though slowly in the last several elections, Democratic dominance there began to wane.

First it was the State Senate, where the GOP took advantage with the surprise help and vote of a Democratic Senator and elected Ron Ramsey as the state's first GOP Lt. Governor since 1869. Then two years ago, the House went Republican by one seat and was poised to elect its first House Speaker since Jenkins in the late ‘60s.

But this time it was a defection by a GOP member (State Representative Kent Williams) who joined with the Democrats to deny that victory to the Republicans (Jason Mumpower) and elected Williams himself to be Speaker.

That's where matters stood (more or less) going into this election when the Republicans, taking advantage of the intense voter anger across the country particularly against the national Democrats, shockingly won enough additional seats to take full and complete Republican control of the House.

The Republicans expected to win more seats in the State House (maybe 3-5 tops), but not the double digit numbers that resulted, giving the GOP close to a two-thirds majority (rivaling the large numbers amassed by the McWherter/Wilder Democrats some years back). The GOP wave ousted several long-time Democratic incumbents, while also picking up some open seats including the 60th District in Nashville where Metro Councilman Jim Gotto will become only the second GOP member of the Davidson County house delegation in modern history.

So dominant were the Republicans that not a single incumbent in the House or Senate lost his or her race. Amazing! While only one seat turned over in the Senate, it too was a Republican pickup as long-time Democrat Doug Jackson was ousted by a political newcomer, APSU English Literature professor and history buff Jim Summerville, an upset absolutely no one saw coming!  

Equally amazing was the GOP performance in the congressional races where it turned a 5-4 Democratic lead into a 7-2 advantage, winning two open seats (retirements by long time Democrats Bart Gordon & John Tanner) and ousting an incumbent (Lincoln Davis). The Davis defeat marks only the second time since 1974 that a congressman was defeated for re-election. 

While winning at least two of these congressional seats seemed all but certain going into Election Night (the 6th with State Senator Diane Black & the 8th District with Stephen Fincher), the shocker was the large margin by which Dr. Scott DesJarlais defeated Congressman Davis. In retrospect it appears that negative ads run by Davis might have backfired on him, although I suspect his campaign felt this was the best and perhaps only way to turn the race around and win. 

Even more remarkable is how two of three new GOP congressmen (DesJarlais & Fincher) had limited or almost no name recognition in the districts just a few weeks or months ago.   DesJarlais even had to run TV ads to tell people how to properly pronounce his name. It shows how in a year with great voter anger,  folks may cast their ballots for candidates they may not know as they usually do and for parties who's "brand name" is still somewhat damaged (exit polls show the generic Republican Party name gets just about as bad support number as the generic Democratic Party brand).     

One last note on the governor's race: I have had several folks mention to me the concession speech of Mike McWherter, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and the son of former Governor Ned McWherter).  I always find quite revealing these campaign moments when the losing candidate gives a final speech. In McWherter's case the folks I talked to seemed to sense from the candidate a feeling of relief, that he was almost glad it was over, that maybe he really wasn't all that keen on running or being governor. 

That could explain a lot about what many feel has been McWherter's rather lackluster effort which resulted in a vote total (527,873 to Haslam's 1 million plus votes) which came up near the all-time bottom for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It appears John Jay Hooker's anemic vote total of  287,750 and 29% percentage of the vote in 1998 remains safe as the party record.  

Now I am pretty sure Mike McWherter did want to run, even though his jovial demeanor during his concession was certainly in sharp contrast to some similar speeches where the losing candidate is downright snarky (Zach Wamp comes to mind) or emotionally overwrought, sometimes near tears.

After the election, McWherter told reporters that he lost because of the huge campaign war chest Haslam amassed and spent (over $16 million). That surely was a detriment. But another issue was how little money McWherter raised on his own, and how ineffective he was in connecting with voters. McWherter now says another reason he lost was because he was unopposed in the primary. Ok, Mike, but I have clips in my files where you said during the primary that running unopposed was going to be a great benefit for you. Whatever.       

Now for Bill Haslam: His own two year personal odyssey comes to an end, transitioning from candidate to governor. He will likely begin with a strong honeymoon period. After all, he will be the first Republican governor to ever have a GOP majority in even one house of the legislature much less both! So if he and the leaders of the General Assembly see eye to eye, their agenda and budgets should be easily enacted into law, no matter what the Democrats think. But what if the new governor and the GOP legislature don't agree, especially on the some of the social issues that the legislature has been pushing in recent sessions?

Haslam has a record being something of a moderate (his detractors call him a RHINO, Republican In Name Only). He was forced to run more to the right during the primary and managed to do so without any damage. He seemed to go back closer to the center during the general election, but then got tripped up after telling a pro-gun group that if the legislature approved, he would sign a measure to repeal the state's gun permit law.

Will some lawmakers and other groups in the state see Haslam going along with the gun group under intense questioning, as a sign that the Governor-Elect can be pushed around? Will Haslam have to make an early show on an issue or an appointment (like all governors, his staff and commissioner appointments will be watched and analyzed closely) so that he can appear to be tough when he needs to be?

Here's a first issue to watch. Some Republican lawmakers have been less than supportive of Governor Bredesen's push to create a statewide Pre-K program. Looming budget cuts could bring this to the fore. Will Governor Haslam seek to cut back the program? If not, what if GOP lawmakers decide to do so? Where will the new Governor stand on that? House Democratic Caucus leader Mike Turner, who just barely survived an upset bid for re-election made an interesting observation to THE NASHVILLE SCENE blog (November 3) when he said: "Bill Haslam won the governor's mansion, but I think Zach Wamp won the legislature." 

I think there is an element of truth in that. It's an under the surface tension that will need to watched closely beginning in January as the new General Assembly convenes and the Haslam administration begins.

But that's for the future. Right now, Governor-Elect Haslam deserves congratulations for the impressive campaign he has run to win the highest office in Tennessee. As he now begins putting together his transition team and ultimately his cabinet and administration, maybe sometime before he takes office, he can grab some time to spend with family and re-charge his batteries for the many challenges ahead.  


What better way to spend the weekend after the 2010 general election than discussing what it means with the Chairmen of the two major parties in the state. That means Chip Forrester (Democratic Party Chair) and Chris Devaney (Republican Party Chair) will be our quests on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend.

There's obviously a lot to talk about both on the state and national levels, so join us as they make this joint appearance on the show. By the way, both men appear poised to try and stay in their party positions. For Devaney, that's no big surprise. In fact, given the GOP's accomplishments in the state during this election cycle, maybe he ought to get a raise.

As for Forrester, the circular firing squad about who and/or what is to blame for the Democrat's election debacle is likely to only intensify if he seeks another term as party chair. After seeing the letter former Nashville At-Large Councilman David Briley has sent to his fellow State Democratic Executive Committee members, is he angling to run, even take on Forrester? The Party has had a major internal split among its top leadership ever since Forrester was elected Party Chair (Governor Phil Bredesen and the most of the Tennessee Democratic Congressional delegation supported another candidate). Can the rift be healed with new leadership or will the Democrats just be changing deck chairs (and make their current captain walk the plank) after their ship is sunk?     

You can see INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. That includes Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. on the main channel, WTVF-TV as well as on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast & Charter cable channels 250 and NEWSCHANNEL5's digital channel 5.2.

Our broadcast times on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS are Friday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday at 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.


In the wake of the Republican's strong showing the State House, now controlling at least 64 seats, there will clearly be a new Speaker of the House. Representative Kent Williams, the self-styled "Carter County Republican," who has served as Speaker the last two years on the strength of Democratic votes, knows he won't be re-elected, so he isn't even trying to run. 

 After all, he was kicked out of the Republican Party for what he did, and while he continued to caucus with his GOP colleagues in the House, Williams had to run and win re-election as an Independent. He could well be caucusing with himself the next two years (and get his office moved to the basement of the War Memorial Building on the Hill). But, believe it or not, my sources tell me that Kent Williams will have some influence in the choice of his successor which seems to be boiling down to a contest between Nashville Representative Beth Harwell and Glenn Casada , the House GOP Caucus Chair from Williamson County.

I am told that Williams can help deliver 3 to 4 Republican votes for whoever he supports for Speaker. And Williams has made his choice known. In a twitter message, the day after the election, Williams said: "I will wholeheartedly support Beth Harwell for Speaker. She is a great leader and will serve us well."

 But based on some private comments I heard Election Night from several Republican representatives, they are still hopping mad at Williams. So his endorsement for Harwell may also strengthen support among some lawmakers for Casada.

Casada seems to be working it in the media telling the NASHVILLE SCENE blog (Wednesday, November 3) about how he claims Williams acted during the election: "I am disappointed that Kent worked openly and very hard against Republicans…I don't know if he endorsed any Republicans. I know he endorsed Judy Barker. He endorsed Ty Cobb and he got involved in the Joe Carr race."  

Most Republican sources I've talked with make Casada the favorite. After he, the incumbent House GOP members (none of whom were defeated for re-election) have voted for Casada in the past. Will they still support him and what about all the new members elected? Many of them have gotten PAC money from both speaker candidates, although I am told some of the more long-shot winners may have only gotten campaign contributions from Harwell. 

 Meanwhile, word is that Governor-Elect Haslam would prefer Harwell for the job, but he is staying out of the race. He's a wise man. I can't think of a quicker way to  put your political honeymoon in danger by getting involved here.       

GREAT SCOTT!         

When former Columbia-HCA Chief Executive Rick Scott left Nashville in the late 1990s after he was ousted by his board in the midst of federal fraud investigation that led to the company paying a record $1.7 million fine, I don't think anyone around here imagined him with a future career in politics.

But guess what? As a Tea Party favorite and the Republican nominee this campaign year, Rick Scott has now been elected the next Governor of Florida.  Scott spent tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune, running as an outsider vowing to shake up the political establishment and warning voters about flaws with "government run" health care, according to an Associated Press article (November 3).   He won his race after a bitterly fought, very close contest with Democrat Alex Sink, who is Florida's CFO.

Life, especially in politics, can truly be unexpected if not downright strange, especially this year.