Democrats exiting the sinking ship? Part 5: Tennessee 

Congressman Bart Gordon of the 6th district of Tennessee has announced that he will not run for reelection in 2010. Gordon is a Democrat who was first elected in 1984, when 6th district incumbent Al Gore successfully ran for U.S. senator. He was then 35, a practicing lawyer who had been chairman of the Tennessee Democratic party for two years. He won the Democratic primary by a 28%-22% margin over Lincoln Davis, who has represented the adjacent 4th district since the 2002 election.

Gordon is one of those politically talented Democrats who helped their party hold majorities in the House from 1954 to 1994 and again since 2006, by winning in districts which tended to vote Republican for president. In 1984 he beat his Republican opponent 63%-37% even as Ronald Reagan was carrying the district as then constituted 59%-41%. In 1988 he won 76%-24% as George H. W. Bush carried the district 60%-39%. Democratic redistricters did him no favors in the 1990-cycle; they left all of Republican-trending Williamson County just south of Nashville in the 6th district. Even so in 1992 Gordon was able to beat Marsha Blackburn, who has represented the adjacent 7th district since 2002, by a 57%-41% margin even as the Bill Clinton-Al Gore ticket was carrying the district by only a 47%-40% margin. That was a trouble sign: a low Democratic percentage in a district that was historically Democratic from the days of Andrew Jackson and which Gore had represented for eight years in the House. In 1994 Gordon had his toughest race, winning by only 51%-49% Steve Gill, well known from his days as a basketball player for the University of Tennessee. He raised his percentage to 64% in 1996, even though the Bob Dole-Jack Kemp ticket carried the district 47%-45% over Clinton-Gore, was cut down to 54% in 1998 and won with 62% in 2000, while George W. Bush was beating Gore in his old congressional district by a 52%-47% margin.

Why was the district trending Republican? Because of vast population increase and free-market-fed prosperity in the Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Sumner and Robertson Counties just outside Nashville. Gordon was Tennessee Democrats’ point man on redistricting after the 2000 Census, and he managed to benefit not only himself but two former opponents. Williamson County was removed from the 6th district and most of it placed in the 7th district; the rural 4th district was made more Democratic and the Bush 2000 margin in the 6th district reduced to 49.2%-49.1%. In both the 7th and 4th districts the incumbent Republicans were running for governor in 2002, which allowed Republican Blackburn to win in the 7th and Democrat Davis in the 4th. Gordon was reelected in the next four elections with 66%, 64%. 67% and 74% of the vote.

But the area continued to trend Republican. George W. Bush carried the current 6th district 60%-40%; John McCain carried it 62%-37%. As in other parts of Jacksonian America, Barack Obama ran poorly here both in the Democratic primary and the general election, and Democrats seem to be doing even worse in such areas now.

Gordon turns 61 in 2010, and his press release announcing his retirement notes that he has an 8-year-old daughter and a wife with an active professional career. So he has plausible personal reasons for quitting now. But a look at the political numbers suggest he also had plausible political reasons. According to Jim Geraghty (who had his eye on this race last August), at least two Republicans are running active campaigns in the 6th district and a Republican state senator is expected to announce soon. Of all the five districts in which Democratic incumbents have recently announced retirements (Kansas 3, Tennessee 8, Washington 3, Hawaii 1), this one seems the likeliest Republican pickup.

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Michael Barone

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