Democratic strategists have been searching for ways to put a third GOP-held Senate seat – after Nevada and Arizona – into play in the hope of winning back the Senate next year. Now, some activists think Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement and a special election in two months to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama open seat are providing surprising opportunities.
No, Nevada and Arizona are not sure bets as takeovers, and there are plenty of Democratic senators up next year who could lose their seats to a GOP challenger.
But putting a third Republican-held seat into play would at least give Democrats a theoretical chance of wresting control of the Senate away from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump next year.
But veteran Democratic strategists remain cautious – and skeptical – about Alabama and Tennessee, worrying that a high profile national Democratic role in the contests would be self-defeating.
Past election results don’t offer much reason for Democratic optimism.
Trump won Alabama last year with 62.1% to 34.4% for Hillary Clinton, and he carried Tennessee 60.8% to her 34.7%. In other words, Trump’s margins in Tennessee (26.1%) and Alabama (27.7%) were both large.
Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Alabama was solidly Democratic and Tennessee was politically competitive.
As late as Election Day 1994, both of Alabama’s sitting senators were Democrats. Howell Heflin was re-elected in 1990, while Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992. But the day after the 1994 elections, Shelby changed parties, and two years later Heflin retired. His seat was won, 53%-46%, by Sessions. Since then, no Democrat has drawn as much as 40% of the vote in an Alabama Senate race.
The last Democratic governor of Alabama was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection four years later, and in 2006 he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but then the bottom fell out for Democrats in presidential contests. Gore lost his home state by more than three points in 2000, and since then the Democratic percentage of the vote in the Volunteer State has shrunk every election.
But Tennessee has seen some competitive high profile general elections over the past decade or two.
Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in a landslide four years later. He carried every county in the state. And in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, Democrat Harold Ford lost the open seat contest to Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring next year, by less than three points. Admittedly, 2006 was a terrible year for Democrats nationally.
The Democratic case for making either of these races competitive relies on two pillars: (1) Donald Trump and (2) what you might call the “crackpot factor.” (For a thoughtful argument that the Alabama race is worth watching, see Zac McCrary’s and John Anzalone’s piece here.)
Midterm voting trends tend to favor the party not controlling the White House, and the President Trump’s unusual style and behavior could in some states be a considerable liability for Republican candidates. If Democrats have any chance in the South, it would be in year when a Republican president is embattled and voters are unhappy.
Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore’s views and his behavior while a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court – including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of United States Supreme Court decisions and his view that God’s Law overrides civil law – could turn off some more moderate and less partisan voters. That could boost the prospects of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones.
If Jones can avoid the national Democratic label and keep the focus on Moore, argue some Democrats, Jones might actually have a path to victory.
In Tennessee, the Democratic scenario is based on the crowded Republican primary field producing a Senate nominee who is also at the extreme end of his or her party. If that happens, and if Democrats can find a credible nominee who can raise money and appeal to a broad swath of Tennessee voters, they could have a chance to win. (In the past, Tennessee has had a history of producing pragmatic nominees rather than anti-establishment bomb-throwers.)
In other words, the Democratic scenarios are mostly wishful thinking at this point. That could change, of course, and there are polls in Alabama that show a Moore-Jones race starts out surprisingly close in the single digits. (See here and here.)
But Trump’s national problems are not likely to be so serious in Alabama, where he is still popular and whites have deserted the Democratic Party.
Smart Democratic strategists are playing it very low-key in both the Alabama and Tennessee races. They will wait to see whether a strong candidate emerges in Tennessee and are conducting polling to see whether they have a serious path to victory in Alabama, but they understand how difficult both of those races are.
If Democratic groups jump in too early and commit major resources, they will essentially “nationalize” the two Senate races, which would undermine the party’s chances in both states. Whatever Alabama Republicans think of Moore and even Trump, they do not want to turn the Senate over to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
While it is difficult to “sneak up” on an opponent these days because of the money and media attention that races can attract, Democratic insiders wisely believe that making either race a cause celebre for the national party or national Democratic figures will actually harm the party’s chances in the two campaigns.
As one Democrat told me, he had no desire to re-play the Georgia 6 special election, which became a partisan fight and was eventually won narrowly by the GOP nominee. “Getting close” in one or both of those races would not be good enough.
We’ll know soon whether Moore is so radioactive that he has turned a Republican landslide into a competitive race, and whether Democrats can find a formidable candidate in Tennessee. For now, the burden is on the Democrats to prove that either Senate race is really winnable.
At this point, both Alabama and Tennessee appear to be too Republican, too conservative and too pro-Trump to elect a Democrat to the Senate.
Even when Democrats dominated the so-called Solid South, the GOP showed strength in mountain areas of the region. Northwestern Arkansas, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and western Virginia all had substantial Republican sympathies.
But now that the national Republican Party has transitioned from the Party of Lincoln to the party of the Old South, are mountain Republicans rethinking their partisan allegiance, or have they simply lost clout in a changed party?
Mountain areas of the South never embraced slavery the way agricultural areas did. That is one reason why residents of mountain counties tended to support the union and the GOP, the party of union.
Of course, not all GOP nominees in mountainous areas won election. But Republican nominees in those areas generally outperformed their party’s nominees in Old South areas.
For example, only one congressional district was competitive in Arkansas in the 1928 elections. The Ozarks-based 3rd district in northwest Arkansas elected Democrat Claude Fuller over Republican Sam Cecil (58%-42%). Interestingly, Fuller was born in northwest Illinois and spent the first decade of his life there until moving with his family to northwest Arkansas.
Fast forward to 1964, and only one Arkansas district was competitive, the 3rd located in northwest Arkansas. That district turned Republican two years later with the election of John Paul Hammerschmidt in 1966.
Hammerschmidt, who served 13 terms in Congress, remained the lone Republican in the state’s delegation until Ed Bethune was elected from the Little Rock-based district in 1978.
In the early 1980s, Virginia’s two most western (and mountainous) districts were represented by M. Caldwell Butler and William Wampler. Butler was more moderate and open to bipartisanship than Wampler, but both were reflected the tradition of pragmatic mountain Republicanism.
North Carolina’s 11th District, the state’s most western, has seen its share of strong partisan fights and partisan flips. Democratic for years, the Blue Ridge Mountains district went Republican in 1980, Democratic in 1982, Republican in 1984, Democratic in 1986, Republican in 1990, Democratic in 2006 and Republican again in 2012. Its current member, Republican Mark Meadows, leads the House Freedom Caucus.
Conservative senator Jesse Helms carried North Carolina’s western district in his 1972 and 1978 races, but only narrowly – a reflection of the area’s more moderate/less Dixie preferences. By contrast, Helms did best in rural areas of eastern North Carolina, which once were solidly Democratic.
Perhaps the best example of mountain Republicans in the South has been in Tennessee. The eastern third of The Volunteer State, which opposed secession, has been reliably Republican for decades. Western Tennessee, on the other hand, supported secession and was much more southern, ideological and reliably Democratic.
Republican senators from the state have often come from East Tennessee, and they oozed pragmatism. The list includes Howard Baker, from pro-union Scott County in northeast Tennessee, Bill Brock, from Chattanooga, in the southeast corner of the state, and both of the state’s current senators. Lamar Alexander grew up in Maryville and Bob Corker grew up in Chattanooga and served as the city’s mayor. (Brock began his career as a Reagan activist but eventually settled into the establishment.)
Fred Thompson was born in Alabama and grew up in south-middle Tennessee. But he came to the Senate from a career in acting and law, and he was a close associate of Baker. On Capitol Hill, Thompson often was an ally of Arizona’s John McCain.
Bill Frist was born and grew up in Nashville, but one of his grandfathers helped found Chattanooga. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Medical School, Frist spent time at Massachusetts General and Stanford University School of Medicine. He may have come from Middle Tennessee, but he fit the East Tennessee mold.
Most of these GOP senators were regarded as “establishment” officeholders who preferred pragmatism to a narrow world view. They were also less “southern” than their Tennessee Democratic colleagues.
As the South underwent partisan realignment, the nature of the Republican Party in the region changed. Conservative voters in the South’s rural and growing suburban areas left the increasingly liberal Democratic Party and gravitated to the GOP, bringing along their more traditionally Southern views, whether on race, culture or the role of government.
Did this development produce any reaction in mountain GOP areas?
So far, there are few, if any, signs that mountain Republicans in the South are uncomfortable with their evolving party. In fact, Republican voters from these areas seem to be moving to the right along with other GOP voters in their states.
This certainly appears to be the case in East Tennessee, where voters continue to have a strong regional identity but also seem comfortable voting the same way that voters in West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee do.
“East Tennessee has more in common with West Virginia than with West Tennessee,” argues Tennessee native Ward Baker, former NRSC executive director.
GOP campaign consultant Brad Todd, a former Tennessee Republican Party executive director, points out that East Tennessee’s voters always had a populist steak even if their political leaders did not. That made it easy for those voters to feel comfortable with the national GOP as it moved to the populist right. (Donald Trump carried 94 of the state’s 95 counties in the 2016 presidential primary, losing only Williamson County, the wealthiest county in the state, to Marco Rubio.)
If Republicans from the mountain areas in the region have lost some of their uniqueness as the GOP has grown in the South, they have also lost something else more important: the political clout they once had in their states.
In Tennessee, for example, the growth in the GOP statewide has diluted the influence of East Tennessee Republicans. In the 1970s, says Todd, East Tennessee made up 60 percent of the Republican statewide primary vote. That number has dropped dramatically as the state’s Republican Party has grown, particularly in other parts of the state.
The same development is obvious elsewhere. In Arkansas, the once heavily Democratic southern and eastern parts of the state are now very conservative and Republican. And in Virginia, an exploding population in the Washington, D.C. suburbs has re-made the state’s electorate.
Many mountain Republicans in the South continue to vote as their grandparents and great-grandparents did, and they continue to have a strong regional identity. But shifting party coalitions and population growth are limiting their clout.
Retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s Senate open seat creates an interesting contest in a probable GOP primary. If Eastern Tennessee is going to select another GOP nominee, the region will need to line up behind a single hopeful in a large field that includes many candidates from the western two-thirds of the state. Otherwise, a more confrontational and ideological Republican could be headed to Capitol Hill. Right now, that seems likely.