The year is almost over, and 2008 was a wild one in Tennessee. While our state was largely left out of the national political picture this year, the state topography was changed drastically in last month’s balloting.
After a year of change and consternation here in the Volunteer State, here are three things we know about the political players in Tennessee that hold lessons about the past and clues about the future of state politics here.
1. Gov. Phil Bredesen has absolutely no electoral coattails.
If there was any doubt left lingering after 2004 as to whether Tennessee’s very popular governor has anything amounting to coattails in an election year, then 2008 put the notion to rest.
Once again, Bredesen went to the mat — short of writing any substantial checks — for Democratic state legislative candidates. And, once again, Democrats got trounced statewide in legislative races and lost the state House as well as seeing Republicans run up their majority in the state Senate.
True, Bredesen was running against the proposition presented by two Democratic tickets in 2004 and 2008 that abdicated the Volunteer State before the primaries were even over. Still, Bredesen’s popularity numbers are higher than any statewide figure in recent memory. Despite campaigning, radio spots and personal endorsements from the governor, Democrats lost ground in both election cycles.
It appears Tennesseans trust Bredesen to fix the state’s budget problems, they just don’t believe he needs a Democratic Legislature to do it. Given the lack of cooperation from within his own party on some budgetary matters in recent years, Joe Sixpack in Tennessee may have a better understanding of the legislative process than anyone in Nashville thinks possible.
2. Rep. Jason Mumpower was underestimated.
There is a story going around state government circles that GOP state House leaders were dialing for dollars in the final days of the campaigns last month. One Republican Caucus leader called the government relations office of a well-known Tennessee company looking for PAC money. This Republican told the gatekeeper on the other end of the line that the GOP had a chance of taking control of the House. The pro on the other end of the line laughed out loud at him.
State Rep. Jason Mumpower cuts a figure more along the lines of a Sopranos enforcer or former bouncer than a consummate politician, with his wide shoulders and shaved head. Clearly, though, he knew something the rest of the state did not. That’s all right, people used to judge former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter by his looks also. Who is laughing now?
Mumpower is the architect of the GOP’s takeover of the House, and if he can hold the GOP Caucus together will be the next speaker of the House. Already, the state’s media is fixated on the social agenda the new GOP majority will push — namely guns and abortion.
However, Mumpower and company are quietly preparing not only social reform measures but also an aggressive pro-business agenda. Think anybody else in the business community will laugh when the GOP House Caucus leaders call after the session is over?
3. Harold Ford Jr. is still Tennessee’s most eligible Democratic candidate.
Ford was maligned by the national left wing of the Democratic Party during President-elect Barack Obama’s rise in the primary season. Ford was knocked on forums like Daily Kos for being too moderate and failing to catch up with the “new” politics of the party.
Since Obama has picked a slew of moderate to center-right former Clinton White House veterans to lead his administration, Ford looks downright prescient.
There is only one Democrat in Tennessee who can raise money at a national level for a statewide campaign, and that is Ford. If anything is clear after 2008, it is that the rest of the Democratic Party in the state is in a state of chaos. Tennessee Congressional Democrats will be reluctant to give up seats in the majority to come home and fight a GOP majority in the General Assembly.
Ford may not be keeping his profile up here locally by putting in time traversing the state, but his face is on television almost every week. There is no other Democrat who could give former Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist a contest in the 2010 governor’s race.