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Tennessee: A red state grows redder

8:46 AM, Nov 8, 2012   |    comments
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By Michael Cass, The Tennessean

President Barack Obama barely penetrated the South in Tuesday's election.

He hardly needed to.

Even without the 13 electoral votes he won in Virginia or the 29 he was poised to pick up as counting continued in Florida, Obama received more than enough support from other parts of the country to defeat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for a second term.

But the president's struggles in the rest of the South -- largely a sea of Republican red on the Electoral College map -- highlighted what the Democratic Party is up against in those states, including Tennessee.

Since the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, when Democrat Bill Clinton carried Tennessee twice, the state has steadily grown more Republican, a trend that cost native son Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Romney won nearly 60 percent of the vote this year and picked off two of the six counties Obama had won in 2008.

On the undercard, Republicans grabbed supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker coasted to re-election over Mark Clayton, a nominee the Democratic Party disavowed three months ago.

Corker remains a moderate, as does his colleague from Tennessee, Sen. Lamar Alexander. But the days when Tennessee sends moderates of both parties to the Senate might be a thing of the past.

Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said Tennessee's population is largely white and religious, playing to the Republican Party's strengths. People who might have been conservative Democrats a generation or two ago are now solidly in the GOP's camp. "As long as these constituencies make up the base of the Republican Party, Tennessee is going to get increasingly red as time goes by," Hetherington said.

Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said Tennessee has relatively few white residents who have moved here from other, more liberal parts of the country when compared with Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, a state that supported Obama in 2008 but moved back to the GOP's column Tuesday.

Tennessee's African-American and Hispanic populations also are relatively small, depriving Democrats of their natural base.

"The Pelosi-Obama-Reid Democratic Party is not one that plays very well with native whites in the South," Black said, referring to the Democratic leaders in Congress. "Certainly conservatives, and I think a lot of the moderates, too, don't support the policies, don't think the economy has really moved that much and would have opposed Obamacare."

Asked if there were any demographic or voting trends developing that might change the South's basic political dynamic, Black said dissatisfaction with the national Democratic Party is the only significant shift under way.

"That is the trend," he said.

'In a different place'

Democrats attempted Wednesday to put a positive spin on Tuesday's election, noting that they had defended 24 seats they held in the state House of Representatives and won four more. But the election nonetheless left them with six fewer members in the House than they had in the previous legislature, leaving them much deeper in the minority.

Obama lost Tennessee by about 20 points, a wider margin than his 15-point loss to U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona four years ago. The lack of enthusiasm for Obama among Tennessee voters appears to have weighed down the party's candidates for the state legislature, too.

"The rest of the country seems to be maybe in a different place than the South is," said Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. "But we've got a message and we have to get back to that message. ... It's about jobs, it's about protecting the middle class, it's about small business, and it's about making sure their children get a good education."

Tennessee's results mirrored most of the South. Obama lost market share in every state except Alabama and Mississippi, where he picked up less than 1 percentage point in each state.

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said Romney exemplified the values of the state's voters.

"I think most Tennesseans believe in states' rights. I think they believe in limited government. I think they fear that the federal government is becoming too large and too intrusive into their personal lives," she said. "I think they would have liked to have seen a change in the direction of our nation."

Amber Adams, a Democrat, agreed that Republicans have been more effective than her party at targeting Southern distrust of federal power. She said she was worried about what the GOP supermajorities might do.

"I imagine that Tennessee Republicans will continue to make life more difficult for immigrants, women, low-income children, teachers, minorities and gays in the coming years," Adams said.

Opportunities for Democrats

The most recent MTSU poll, taken just before the election, found that Tennessee is getting substantially redder among voters ages 18-44. In that group, 57 percent of voters supported McCain in 2008; 74 percent said they planned to vote for Romney this year.

College-educated voters also were more likely to vote for Romney than McCain, said Middle Tennessee State University's Ken Blake, the poll's director. But much of the Republican vote still comes from white evangelicals, and the party will have to figure out how to expand its reach in Tennessee and nationally, Blake said.

"Maybe what we're seeing in these results is not just the reddening of Tennessee but the whitening of the Tennessee Republican Party," he said. "Maybe this is just symptomatic of a Republican Party that is presently drawing most of its support from white, evangelical voters. And we happen to have a lot of white, evangelical voters in Tennessee."

Charles Robert Bone, a Nashville attorney who was one of the Obama campaign's top fundraisers in Tennessee, said Democrats from the president on down have a chance to be seen as "the party of cooperation, the party who is focused on partisanship and certainly the party focused on fiscal responsibility."

"I don't see the results as people voting for a mandate of status quo but voting for a mandate of bipartisanship, saying, 'We want these people to work together,' " Bone said.

Within Tennessee, Democrats can try to make inroads in rural areas by talking about middle-class jobs, a fair tax policy and the national debt, he said. And the success of Darren Jernigan, Bo Mitchell and Jason Powell, three young candidates who won state House races in Davidson County, showed that "when you have good candidates that are adequately funded and know who their vote is and work very hard to get their vote out, Democrats can be competitive in certain places," Bone added.

But those victories only slowed the bleeding for Democrats, who lost six of their 13 seats in the Senate and six of 34 in the House, giving the GOP walkout-proof, two-thirds majorities in both houses.

"Voters spoke with a loud and clear voice tonight," Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Tuesday. "They like what they see from Tennessee Republicans."

Even as Republicans regroup nationally and try to plot a course back to the White House in 2016, they can feel comfortable in Tennessee, said Hetherington, the Vanderbilt professor. They control not only the legislature but also the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of the nine congressional offices.

"What are the incentives to change course?" he said. "Whatever is happening at the national level isn't happening in Tennessee. Parties tend to change when they lose, and in Tennessee, this approach to politics is winning."

Staff writer Chas Sisk contributed to this report.

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