The rise of Sen. Barack Obama, to become the Democrats’ presidential nominee has put most of his party’s faithful on his bandwagon — but not Lincoln Davis, a rural Tennessee Congressman with gubernatorial ambitions.
Davis (D-Pall Mall) is not yet endorsing the presumptive nominee in Obama, saying he’ll wait until the late August Democratic Party national convention.
In Davis’ sprawling 4th Congressional District — which ranges from as far west as Hickman County to as far east as the upper Cumberland Plateau — less than a quarter of Democrats in the largely rural district voted for Obama, the nation’s first African-American presidential candidate nominated by a major party, in Tennessee’s presidential primary.
Davis, a rural white Congressman, represents two-dozen counties — 21 in their entirety and three in part — including Williamson’s southwestern corner.
In February’s Tennessee Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) won 23 of those 24 counties, garnering 68 percent of the vote compared to Obama’s 23 percent. Obama won only Williamson County.
When examining the 21 counties resting entirely within Davis’ district, Clinton’s numbers rise from 68 percent to winning 73 percent of the vote. Obama won a meager 18 percent.
The situation presents perhaps a unique political situation for Davis. He is withholding his endorsement of Obama while he prepares to face a Republican challenge for his conservative “swing” district that overwhelmingly supported Obama’s rival.
Meanwhile, Davis has gubernatorial ambitions for 2010, in which Tennessee political history strongly suggests the Democratic strongholds of Shelby and Davidson counties with their large groups of black voters are a must for his or any Democrat’s aspirations for statewide office.
Fred Hobbs, a state Democratic Party Executive Committee member representing part of Davis’ district, said he understands why Davis is not endorsing Obama and is “skeptical” of the Illinois senator himself.
“Maybe [it’s] the same reason I don’t want to — I don’t exactly approve of a lot of the things he stands for and I’m not sure we know enough about him,” Hobbs said when asked why he thought Davis wasn’t endorsing Obama. “He’s got some bad connections, and he may be terrorist connected for all I can tell. It sounds kind of like he may be.”
Davis was not made available for comment.
His chief of staff, Beecher Frasier, said he doesn’t know for sure if Obama is “terrorist connected” but he assumes he’s not.
Frasier denied that Davis was withholding his endorsement of Obama for political reasons, saying Davis believed that was how the superdelegate system was intended to work.
“You look at his profile — he’s very independent,” Frasier said. “I mean he is a Democrat, but he certainly fits the district very well, and that’s his priority is the 4th Congressional District.”
In Tennessee, Davis is not the only Democratic superdelegate withholding their endorsement of the party nominee. U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Murfreesboro) and former Vice President Al Gore have also not endorsed Obama.
But earlier this year, Davis acknowledged he had been supporting a one-time Obama rival — John Edwards — who has now endorsed the presumptive nominee.
In February, Davis allowed that he had been supporting Edwards before the former North Carolina senator dropped out of the race. He called the remaining presidential candidates at that time “leftovers.”
Despite Frasier’s assertion, political considerations are likely figuring into leading Tennessee Democrats like Davis’ calculations, said John Vile, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Vile said given Tennessee Democrats’ affinity for Clinton, there’s “fear” among some Democratic leaders like Davis to not become too supportive of Obama. He noted that polls currently have Obama doing well nationally and he could become an inspirational figure like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy.
But Vile said there’s a risk he could become another Democratic presidential candidate who didn’t appeal to average Americans, which may be keeping Davis at arms-length.
“It may be that he’s just sort of keeping some distance in order to make sure he’s not tied permanently to someone who might eventually be regarded as a second George McGovern,” Vile said of the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee who lost in a landslide to Republican Richard Nixon.
John Rowley, a Democratic political strategist working with Davis, said there was “no political calculus” involved with the congressman’s lack of an Obama endorsement.
“I don’t think anybody really makes themselves or breaks themselves by a member of Congress getting involved in a presidential race,” Rowley said.
During the 2006 election cycle, Davis didn’t allow much distance between himself and former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. when Ford was running for Senate. Davis raised his statewide profile as the chairman of Ford’s campaign, appearing with the charismatic Ford as he nearly became the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
An election cycle later, another charismatic black candidate in Obama won handily in urban areas where African-Americans are more predominant. In Shelby County, for example, Obama garnered an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote. In Davidson, he received 60 percent.
To win in a close statewide election, Democrats historically must win the black vote in Tennessee.
Frasier said Davis’ chairmanship of Ford’s Senate campaign would help him with black voters despite his withholding of an Obama endorsement.
“He traveled this whole state with Harold,” Frasier said.
MTSU’s Vile dismissed the notion that Davis would have trouble with black voters in 2010 as a result of keeping distance from Obama.
“I think he has plenty of time to mend fences, assuming that he will probably eventually go with the Democratic candidate,” Vile said.
Randy Button, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has known Davis since at least 1994, said he doesn’t know why Davis is withholding his presidential leanings. But Button has had that feeling before, saying the 64-year-old farmer is “anything but predictable.”
“I’m not sure,” Button said. “Maybe he’s holding out for Obama to call him to be his running mate.”
The Tennessee Democratic Party issued the following statement Friday morning in response to this story:
“The Tennessee Democratic Party is united behind our party’s nominee, Senator Barack Obama. Mr. Hobbs is obviously misinformed, and his statement highlights the perpetual efforts of the Republican Party, especially here in Tennessee, to turn internet smears and highly offensive gossip into their party’s message against Senator Barack Obama as we head into the General Election. Instead of debating the issues, the Tennessee Republican Party continues to rely upon slanderous and salacious tall tales. They are borrowing from the playbook first written by Richard Nixon and employed in the race against Congressman Harold Ford Jr. Tennesseans of every political persuasion are tired of these tactics.”
Beecher Frasier, Chief of Staff for Rep. Lincoln Davis, issued this statement clarifying his position:
"No one in their right mind, including me, believes Senator Obama has ties to terrorism. It is truly ridiculous for anyone to try to make hay out of these comments."