Shortly after polls close at 7 o’clock tonight, Tennesseans will learn whether disenchantment with the Democratic Party on a national scale has trickled down to state House races.
With observers forecasting a sizeable victory for Republican Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam over Democratic businessman Mike McWherter in Tennessee’s gubernatorial race, politicos will be surveying returns from several state legislative races — a few inside Davidson County — to see whether an expected big night for Republicans nationally helps the GOP expand its 51-48 House and 19-14 Senate majorities in Tennessee.
“This is a year where Republicans are going to do well,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt. “I suspect that’s going to carry through to state legislative races as well. That should give Republicans more comfortable majorities in the state legislature than they have now. I think the question is how big those are and how lasting they are.”
Tennessee has trended Republican during the last few election cycles. That reality combined with a restless electorate and a perceived energy gap between the two parties could turn a red state even redder.
“The state has had about a 10-point Republican lean to it,” Oppenheimer said. “And in a bad year for Democrats, it’s going to be bigger than that.”
More than 736,000 Tennessee voters have already cast ballots. Based on historical trends, a similar number of voters will hit the polls on Tuesday.
Tennessee Republican Party chair Chris Devaney claims his party’s voter-identification numbers suggest 54 percent of Tennessee early voters were Republican, 35 percent were Democrats and 12 percent were independent. He called it a “strong statement.”
“We’re on the brink of leading in every level of government,” Devaney said. “That means we’re going to win the governorship. We’re going to have a majority of Republicans in our congressional delegation, and we’re going to have a working majority in the legislature in our state House and state Senate.”
Democratic senators representing parts of Davidson County are safe, with state Sen. Douglas Henry the only Democrat facing an opponent.
The outlook in the House is different. A contest crucial for the hopes of state Democrats — who insist they can keep the current House margin and perhaps make some gains — is the District 60 race between Metro Council members Jim Gotto and Sam Coleman to succeed departing Democratic state Rep. Ben West Jr. The district — which includes parts of Donelson-Hermitage and Antioch — is historically Democratic, but Gotto has strong ties there.
A groundswell of anti-incumbent sentiment could also turn what are generally considered safe Democratic seats competitive. The District 51 contest between incumbent Democratic state Rep. Mike Turner and Republican businessman Charles Williamson is an example. A loss for Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, would qualify as a seismic upset.
Republican victories for either Metro Councilman Duane Dominy, challenging District 59 state Rep. Sherry Jones, or 23-year-old Dymon “Dave” Hall, who is challenging District 50 Rep. Gary Moore, would likely signal substantial gains for Republicans statewide.
Tennessee Democratic Party chair Chip Forrester said “midterm elections are [always] difficult for the party in power” and acknowledged Tennessee Democrats are facing a “headwind” of voter frustration.
“That certainly makes it more difficult,” Forrester said.
Nonetheless, Forrester said he doesn’t sense the impending “‘red tide’ that Republicans in Tennessee have talked about happening here,” adding that he also doesn’t believe there’s an enthusiasm gap among the state’s Democrats.
Asked what would constitute a successful night for his party, Forrester said, “Holding our House and Senate lines or a small advance. All we need is two seats to take back the House.”