Democrats exiting the sinking ship? Part 2: Tennessee 

The Hotline reports that Congressman John Tanner of the 8th district of Tennessee is retiring in 2010. Tanner, a Democrat and a member of the Blue Dog Caucus, was first elected in 1988; he turns 66 in 2010 and in a statement said he considered retiring in 2008, but decided to run for one more term so that he could serve as Chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly..

Jim Geraghty of National Review notes that Tanner was facing competition this year from Republican gospel singer Stephen Fincher, who has raised $300,000 in a short period of time and seemed likely to wage a serious campaign in a district that voted 56%-43% for John McCain in 2008. This west Tennessee district was one of the few where Barack Obama ran behind John Kerry’s 2004 showing; George W. Bush carried the district by only 53%-47% in 2004. It voted 51%-48% for Tennessee’s own Al Gore in 2000.

The 8th district, almost entirely west of the Tennessee River, is the state’s district most akin to the Deep South. Blacks form 23% of the population and form the larger part of the Democratic base; whites have voted heavily Republican for president for some time. Tanner has been a politically shrewd member with a relatively moderate voting record; he has taken up causes like eliminating the estate tax and requiring congressional redistricting to be done by independent commission. He won the seat in 1988 with 66% in the Democratic primary and 62% in the general election; his closest race since then came in the Republican year of 1994, when he won 64%-36%.

Was Tanner facing imminent defeat? I doubt that very much, but it appeared he was facing more formidable opposition than he ever has before. But Obama got just 43% of the vote in the district and, given his low ratings and the likelihood that black turnout in 2010 will not be as robust as it was in 2008, Tanner would have had to run well ahead of basic party preference in order to win a twelfth term.

The last time the Tennessee 8th was the scene of a nationally significant contest was the March 1969 special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Democratic incumbent Bob Everett. In November 1968, just four months before, George Wallace had won 48% of the vote in the district as then constituted, to 28% for Hubert Humphrey and 26% for Richard Nixon. Wallace came in to Tennessee to campaign for American party candidate William Davis and Howard Baker, then a freshman senator, campaigned for Republican Dunavant. Democrat Ed Jones, a former state agriculture commissioner, did not bring in outsiders but relied on the traditional Democratic sentiments of Wallace voters and the Democratic loyalty of black voters. He won with 51% of the vote, to 25% for Davis and 24% for Dunavant. This turned out to be a signal that conservative Southern Democrats could hold on to a lot of Deep South districts despite Wallace’s popularity there or Richard Nixon’s supposed Southern strategy. Jones and Tanner have held the district now for the Democratic party for more than 40 years. Now it seems very much up for grabs. Not good news for House Democrats.

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Michael Barone

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