In your average legislative race, an endorsement from Tennessee Right to Life (TNRTL) wouldn't be a make or break situation for a campaign. In most races, pro-life endorsements go to the Republican and, in exchange, that Republican gets a few more foot soldiers and a few more guaranteed votes at the polls. Nice things to have, but hardly crucial.
For Pat Marsh, running as a Republican for state House in the 62nd District special election, the endorsement would have meant more. Marsh is not just your average Republican running in a Republican district. He is a Republican running for a seat historically held by conservative Democrats.
Marsh's opponent is not just any conservative Democrat, either. Ty Cobb is the brother of the incumbent, Rep. Curt Cobb, and the son of a former county official and legislator in the district. His surname has currency in the district.
The good news for Marsh is that while the seat has been in Democratic hands, its voters vote for Republican candidates nationally.
The seat is ripe for the plucking by the TNGOP and couldn't have come open at a more perfect time. The state House is at a stalemate. A clear numerical advantage would give Republicans momentum going into 2010, a year where the political future of the state is at stake.
After the 2010 elections, whichever party controls the majority of the seats in the legislature will redraw the districts in both houses and carve out districts designed to solidify their numbers.
This special election is not your average special election. It is a preliminary skirmish in the 2010 battle for the future of the legislature.
In almost any poll you run on the abortion issue, you will get a three-way split — few strongly pro-life, few strongly pro-choice and and the rest somewhere in the middle. Very few of any of these are going to base their vote completely on the abortion issue, but most of those who do will vote pro-life. Most of the time that means voting Republican.
It is a perfect symbiotic relationship. The pro-life movement delivers Republicans votes and the party introduces pro-life legislation such as SJR 127.
So why, on the cusp of victory for the political party that carries it's legislative portfolio, would the premier pro-life organization in Tennessee endorse the Democratic candidate? Why did TNRTL endorse Cobb?
The TNRTL endorsed him for the same reason a child defies a parent or a wife cheats on an emotionally distant husband. They wanted to be noticed. If the TNRTL had simply gone along and endorsed the Republican candidate, it would have been expected. But, by endorsing the Democrat, the TNRTL got to make a splash. They sent a message.
Endorsing the Democrat may have been better for their self-image and self-esteem, but it does not serve their ultimate goals.
Tennessee's Democratic party's leadership has never made the cause a priority and often buried favorable legislation in the committee system. Republicans, on the other hand, have been relatively eager to reward the movement by pushing their legislation.
A seat at both parties' tables may sound like a good idea in theory but, if you are a movement pushing a minority view and looking for tangible results, it is best to pick a side and trust them to push your agenda.
The sad part of all of this is that this race may very well turn on this issue. In one of the worst economies in my lifetime, a crucial legislative race may not turn on jobs, giving people a leg up, or even getting taxpayers more of their own money back — this election may turn on culture.
This is not to belittle the abortion issue. For many, it is it an issue both of life and death and of personal autonomy versus government power. It is a moral issue and a legitimately political one. I'm not one of those who insists that cultural issues like abortion have no place in politics or should always be relegated to the backburner.
But these are not normal times. We have a national economy disintegrating and a state budget propped up by an unsustainable stream of stimulus funds.
We will be confronting big issues in the next few years and under what circumstances a pregnancy can be terminated is going to be the least of our worries. We should start getting used to that fact and draw the focus of our elections to more immediate issues and leave the cultural wars for another day.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com's political blogger. Visit Post Politics at http://postpolitics.net