Sen. Doug Henry has been a state Senator for 39 years. He is an institution. Despite a fast-changing political landscape and culture, Henry has remained a loyal Democrat.
But now elements in his party have turned against him. Yes, the governor and supporters like Jason Holleman and Emily Evans have stood tall, but there is clearly a well of support in the party for his opponent, Jeff Yarbro.
While Yarbro is young and somewhat unknown, his challenge is not like others which came before it. Yarbro is ambitious and he is progressive. If the Tennessee Democratic Party has a future in the state legislature, Yarbro could easily be the face of it.
True, the smart money is still behind Henry. Yarbro, the experts say, is simply running to get his name out there so that when the seat does come open his name rings out just as loud as the Evanses and the Hollemans.
Maybe. But his name will be on the ballot. He will raise significant money. He will work hard. He could win.
Remember, this is a Democratic primary. While voters in the 21st district have elected Sen. Henry time and again, some of those voters have passed on. New voters have replaced them and they don't much care for tradition or institutional knowledge.
They look at Henry and see the Democratic Party's past. They see a man, a kindly man, a grandfatherly man, but a man who doesn't have a modern outlook on a life. They see a man who can define rape as the "violation of a chaste woman by some party not her spouse" with a straight face and without a hint of irony.
The Democratic primary electorate has changed since Henry was first elected. Not only have old Yellow Dog Dems died off leaving young progressives in their place, some Democrats who might have voted for him in past elections may not be there for him in 2009. Not because they don't want him as their senator but because they are no longer Democrats. If a "Democrat" votes for John McCain, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander long enough, they cease thinking of themselves as a Democrats — and they stop voting in primaries.
If Henry stands against Yarbro in a Democratic primary in 2010, he will be standing on a long and distinguished record but he will also be standing against history and demographics.
So, if Yarbro and his young progressive supporters want this Democratic nomination so bad, Henry should let them have it. For his last term, Sen. Henry should run as what he has become: a statesman — an Independent statesman.
Why not? You think the Republicans are really looking forward to recruiting a candidate and spending money to keep Yarbro out of the senate? Don't get me wrong. I'm sure they will if they have to. They have one Lowe Finney in the Senate, they don't want another one.
But the problem for the GOP is that such a venture would not be a lay-up. The conventional wisdom that Henry's conservatism is the only thing standing between the 21st and Republican representation is terribly misguided.
The district contains Belle Meade but the district is not only Belle Meade. The district, without an incumbent, is a solid toss-up with a Democratic lean. Could a Republican win the seat in an election without Henry? Sure. But it wouldn't be cake. The GOP caucus is going to have enough to worry about making sure Stacey Campfield, Brian Kelsey and A.J. McCall stay out of trouble — they don't need the kind of headache a Yarbro nomination would give them.
The Republicans were likely going to cede the race to Henry anyway so if the senator came to the Republican powers that be and said that he was running as an independent, what interest would they have in blocking his path by running a candidate? Actually, Republicans could save everyone a lot of trouble by coming to Henry with the proposition themselves.
Henry should run as a Independent if for no other reason than to prevent what happened to Sen. Rosalind Kurita from happening to him. If the Kurita case proved anything, it was that Democratic primary results in this state can occasionally be, shall we say, malleable.
If Yarbro got close, like Sen. Tim Barnes did, what would prevent him from taking the results to the primary board and having them thrown out because a Republican or two cast their vote for ol' Henry?
Of course, if the party did throw out the election and Henry challenged the results in court, the Democratic Party could always use one of the same lawyers to defend the party as they did in the Kurita case — a young lawyer named Jeffery Yarbro.