Congressman Bart Gordon decided against seeking reelection because he saw a savage campaign ahead and feared that, even if he won, he’d lose in 2012 given the likelihood that a Republican-controlled legislature would redraw his district, Gordon’s associates say.
Gordon’s announcement shocked many Democrats Monday and angered some who say they felt he was deserting the beleaguered state party in its time of need. Gordon became the second of Tennessee’s Democratic congressmen to retire this month, joining 20-year incumbent John Tanner in heading for the exits.
“I figure he said, ‘Screw it. Hell, I’ve served my 13 terms in Congress. It’s time for me to sit back and relax and enjoy my time with my kids and my wife,’ ” one Democratic insider told The City Paper. “It shocked me when I got the call this morning. … It’s got me a little discombobulated. I’m here trying to fight the good fight, and all the people I thought I looked up to are starting to say, ‘To hell with it, we’re done.’ ”
Republicans crowed as another vulnerable Democrat retired rather than face the voters in 2010. The respected Cook Political Report promptly rated the seat as a “likely Republican” pickup, and state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, said he would announce his candidacy later in the day. He joins former Rutherford County GOP chair Lou Ann Zelenik in the race. Other Republicans are said to be thinking about running. No Democrat has yet announced, though the Nashville Post has identified possible contenders.
“Tennessee is now the place where Democrat congressional candidacies go to die,” boasted Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Nationally, four Democrats in swing districts have decided in recent weeks not to run again. Democrats have been dismissing the retirements as isolated cases, refusing to acknowledge the tough political environment that’s developing for the party, especially in red states like Tennessee.
But sources close to Gordon did not try to hide the role that cold political calculations played in his decision. Even if Gordon won next year, Republicans likely will retain control of the legislature and try to gerrymander the congressman out of Congress, ensuring yet another difficult campaign in 2012, these sources say.
Gordon, who has held Middle Tennessee’s 6th District since 1984, has drawn the fire of Tea Party activists for his votes on climate change legislation and health care reform. In 2008, John McCain beat President Obama in Gordon’s district by more than 20 points.
Yet polling showed Gordon remained comfortably ahead of potential challengers, one source said. “It really overall was positive. He was ahead and should have been able to stay there. He still had good favorables. When you ask the question, ‘Is Bart part of the solution in Washington or part of the problem?’ a solid majority still thought he was part of the solution.
“We would have won this race,” this source says. “But it would have been ugly, divisive for the community and for the whole district. The problem then is basically you’ve probably gotten yourself two more years. You’ve put everybody through that and then you more than likely are redistricted out of office. You’re in a different district and you’re fighting it all over again.”