GovernorPhil Bredesen (D)
SenatorsLamar Alexander (R)
Bob Corker (R)
- 5 D, 4 R
- 1 through 9
Tennessee is a battleground state, with a fighting temperament since it was settled 200 years ago. It produced so many soldiers for Andrew Jackson’s wars with Indians and the British that it came to be known as the Volunteer State. In the 1860s, Yankee troops swept down the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers on their way to Mississippi, traveling through Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain on their way to Atlanta and the sea. But Tennessee is a battleground with a certain civility: Both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on the widow of President James K. Polk, who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Tennessee also has been a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a manifesto calling for retaining the South’s rural economy and heritage. On the other side have been business leaders and politicians who have made Tennessee the fastest-growing state of the interior South. The state gave birth to the first supermarket (a Piggly Wiggly), the Holiday Inn, FedEx and Goo-Goo Clusters. Both influences remain strong in this elongated state, despite the long distance between its two ends: Johnson City in East Tennessee is closer to Dover, Del., than it is to Memphis, and Memphis is closer to Dallas, Texas than to Johnson City.
The state has also been a marshaling ground for the music traditions that have a large place in Americans’ lives. East Tennessee is one of the original homes of bluegrass music and mountain fiddling, with string bands and vocal harmony. Knoxville’s Tennessee Barn Dance has been broadcast since 1942. Gospel music has long been centered in Nashville, which is also the nation’s leading center of religious publishing, the headquarters of Thomas Nelson, FaithWorks, Integrity Books and LifeWay’s Broadman & Holman. Country music got its commercial start in Nashville, with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium in 1925. Nashville remains indisputably the capital of country music. The Mississippi lowlands around Memphis, which is economically and culturally the metropolis of the Mississippi Delta, gave birth to the blues in the years from 1890 to 1920, and the blues were in turn the inspiration for the jazz musicians of Beale Street in the 1920s and for Elvis Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s. Presley’s Graceland mansion is now a major tourist destination.
Tennessee has long been a political battleground. Its political divisions have their roots in the Civil War, and many counties today still vote their 1860s loyalties, The Union counties, mainly in East Tennessee but also a scattering in the west, vote solidly Republican, while the Confederate counties in Middle and West Tennessee long voted heavily Democratic. Within the limits of these enduring party loyalties, political entrepreneurs have set the tone for the state. From the 1920s to 1948, Edward Crump, longtime mayor of Memphis, used his total control of Democratic primary votes there to elect governors and senators. (Crump, unlike other Southern Democrats, allowed blacks to vote, and they voted his way.) The Tennessee Valley Authority and the cheap electric power it generated provided an institutional base for reform liberal Democrats Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr., who beat incumbents in primaries when they were elected to the Senate in 1948 and 1952, respectively. They were soon national figures, with reliable enough backing from Tennessee’s yellow-dog Democratic majority to vote for civil rights bills and to refuse to sign the segregationist Southern Manifesto. Kefauver died in 1963 and Gore was defeated in 1970, but he lived to see his son twice elected vice president before his death in 1998. Tennessee has never had a large black population—17% today, half of whom live in and around Memphis—and the state was not riven by the racial animosity that divided so much of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks in large part to the actions of its leading politicians but also thanks in part to the continuing hold of ancestral partisan preferences.
Today the political balance has changed, and Tennessee has become a mostly Republican state. Democrats’ cultural liberalism moved rural voters in West and Middle Tennessee away from their ancestral loyalties, and the surging growth in the ring of counties around Nashville in the last two decades created a new voting bloc that is conservative on both economic and cultural issues. The first movement toward the Republicans occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, with the election of Republican Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock in 1966 and 1970, and Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander in 1978. Then, as Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter changed the image of the Democratic Party, Democrats rallied. Democrats Jim Sasser and Al Gore Jr. were elected to the Senate in 1976 and 1984, respectively, and Democrat Ned Ray McWherter was elected governor in 1986. This movement was still strong enough for the Clinton-Gore ticket to carry Tennessee 47%-42% in 1992. But the narrowness of the margin was a warning. In 1994, Tennessee turned against the Clinton administration and produced a kind of political revolution. Republican Fred Thompson, famous as a Watergate investigator and movie actor, won the remainder of Gore’s Senate term by a landslide, Republican heart transplant surgeon Bill Frist beat Sasser, and Republican Don Sundquist was elected governor. Republicans won most of the votes for the U.S. House, gaining two seats and coming close in a third. The Republican trend was strong enough in 1996 that only after extraordinary efforts—Gore made 16 appearances here and the campaign pumped in money for late ads—was the Clinton-Gore ticket able to win by a narrow 48%-46%.
In 2000, the tide was even stronger. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush targeted the state early and worked it energetically. Headquartered in Nashville, the Gore campaign seemed to assume the state would come around in the end and campaigned hard here only in the last few days. Bush carried the state 51%-47% and Gore became only the fourth major party nominee to lose his home state in 85 years. (The others were South Dakota’s George McGovern in 1972, Kansas’ Alf Landon in 1936 and New Jersey’s Woodrow Wilson in 1916.) The 2002 election saw some movement back to Tennessee Democrats. Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen won the governorship 51%-48%. Tennessee has now alternated parties in the governor’s office at eight-year intervals for a quarter-century. Democrats, aided by partisan redistricting, also picked up one congressional district and maintained control of the Legislature. But Republican Alexander, 20 years after he won his second election as governor, was elected to the U.S. Senate by 54%-44%. In 2004, Bush carried Tennessee by a solid 57%-43%, Republicans won the popular vote for the House, and for the first time since Reconstruction, voters elected a Republican majority in the state Senate. Even 2006, a Democratic year nationally, was mixed in Tennessee. Bredesen, after trimming the TennCare health insurance program, was re-elected 69%-30%, carrying all 95 counties. But Republican Bob Corker, after winning a bitter primary, was able to beat Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford 51%-48%—this, despite an effective campaign by Ford, whose strong showing looks, in retrospect, as a harbinger of Democrat Barack Obama’s national victory two years later. But not in Tennessee, which was part of the Jacksonian swath of America running along the Appalachians and to the southwest where Obama ran weakly both in the primaries and in the general election. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain carried Tennessee 57%-42%, Alexander was re-elected 65%-32%, and Republicans, to the surprise of almost everyone, won majorities in both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Tennessee has been expanding economically, but hasn’t abandoned its cultural roots. If its economy lagged behind the nation’s through much of the 20th century, its open climate for entrepreneurism enabled it to grow mightily over the last three decades. The expansion started in the early 1980s, when Alexander helped bring big auto plants to Middle Tennessee. The lack of strong unions and of bitter racial divisions—Tennessee was mostly untouched by the racial strife of the 1930s and the civil rights battles of the 1960s—attracted Japanese companies, which in turn attracted General Motors’ Saturn division. In 2006, Nissan moved its American headquarters from the Los Angeles suburbs to Nashville, and in July 2008, Volkswagen chose Chattanooga as the site of one of its first American factories. In the past few years, as the Big Three auto companies’ problems sank Michigan’s economy, Tennessee’s mostly Japanese auto companies thrived. There were 126,000 auto-related jobs in the state in 2008. Some of Tennessee’s old industries have fallen behind. Apparel and textile factories have closed, and the tobacco harvest in 2006, after the federal tobacco buyout, was down 72% from its peak in 1982. But country music has continued to be popular and successful. And Nashville has become a major health care center. Growth has been particularly robust in the ring of counties around Nashville, which have been attracting significant Hispanic immigration. Tennessee’s economy seemed to be faltering a bit in early 2008, as auto sales plummeted, and Bredesen ordered waves of state budget cuts. But the housing bubble here was relatively small and Tennessee’s diversified economy seemed poised to fare better than some states.
During its years of growth, Tennessee state politics became, well, a battleground. Tennessee has been growing more than neighboring states in part because of its low taxes. It has no income tax and it ranks low on the list of state and local taxes as a percentage of per capita income. But in 1994, Gov. Ned McWherter created TennCare, an extension of Medicaid, and TennCare spending accelerated far above projections, from $2.5 billion in 1995 to $8 billion in 2004. Republican Gov. Sundquist, elected on a no-income-tax platform, nonetheless pressed unsuccessfully for an income tax. Democrat Bredesen, also elected on a no-income-tax platform, kept his promise and has scaled back TennCare significantly. In 2008, he started a new state health insurance program, which has cost less than projected. Partisan skirmishing in the Legislature has taken odd turns. In 2007, a Democrat defected and the state Senate elected a Republican speaker, who is also the lieutenant governor. In 2009, a Republican refused to support his party’s choice for House speaker, throwing control of the Legislature into turmoil. The battles reached across the state border. In 2008, the Legislature in drought-stricken Georgia passed a resolution declaring that the border with Tennessee had been incorrectly drawn by a surveyor in 1818 and demanded that it be redrawn a mile north. This would mean that part of the Tennessee River would be in Georgia, giving it a new water source. The resolution directed Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to negotiate a settlement with his Tennessee counterpart. Bredesen, his spokesman said, “has made it clear he has no intention of moving Tennessee’s border, nor will he give away Tennessee’s natural resources.” The issue came up once before, in 1887 and, now as then, no actual fighting broke out.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Tennessee is one of only two states—the other is Arkansas—that has given Republican presidential candidates increasing percentages of its votes in each of the last four elections. One reason is that Arkansas’ Bill Clinton and Tennessee’s Al Gore were running in 1992 and 1996 and ran unusually well for Democrats in their home states. But Gore’s hometown status was not enough for him to carry the state—which would have made him president regardless of Florida’s outcome—because of the unpopularity here of the cultural liberalism that won Clinton and Gore so many suburban votes in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Further Republican gains, such as George W. Bush’s 56.8% of the vote here in 2004 and John McCain’s 56.9% in 2008, probably owe something to attitudes on foreign policy and war.
Tennessee’s most famous son is President Andrew Jackson, and much of the state was settled by his fellow Scots-Irish, who were famously ready to fight to the death when their families or their country were threatened. (Jackson killed two men in duels after they said unkind things about his wife.) The Jacksonian belt, throughout the Appalachian chain and running west from Tennessee to Arkansas and Oklahoma, seemed repelled by the antiwar policies of Democratic nominees John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008, and perhaps particularly by Obama’s generally conciliatory demeanor. Obama carried Memphis’ Shelby County, which is about half African-American, and Nashville’s Davidson County, but he won only four of the state’s other 95 counties, each of them a declining-population rural area where Democratic loyalties go back to the Civil War. McCain carried whites 63%-34% and white evangelical Protestants (52% of the electorate) 75%-22%. As Bredesen said, Barack Obama’s strategy of concentrating on target states “that produced our national win came at a real cost to Democrats here in Tennessee.”
For several election seasons, Tennessee held its presidential primary on Super Tuesday (though Tennessee holds its state primaries on Thursdays, the only state to do so). But it was far from the biggest state to vote that day, and received little attention. In 2004, it voted earlier, on February 10, just two weeks after New Hampshire, and the only other primary that day was in Virginia. This was just a week after Democrat John Edwards had won in South Carolina and Democrat Wesley Clark had led Edwards and Kerry in a virtual three-way tie in Oklahoma. Both Edwards and Clark were from next-door states, but Kerry won with 41% to 27% for Edwards and 23% for Clark. Turnout was 369,000, far lower than the record Democratic primary turnout in 1988 of 576,000, when Gore was running. For 2008, Tennessee set its primary on Super Tuesday, February 5. But it did not see much campaigning. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton was well ahead in polls, and won a solid 54%-40%. Turnout was a record high, 625,000, and 25% of voters were African-American. Obama carried Shelby and Davidson counties, plus four small rural counties. Clinton carried the rest, getting as much as 86% in yellow-dog Democratic Grundy County. On the Republican side, everyone assumed that Fred Thompson, who announced his candidacy in September 2007, would carry his home state. But he dropped out of the race after his weak showing in South Carolina, and the remaining candidates suddenly started putting Tennessee on their schedules. Mike Huckabee carried most of rural Tennessee and Shelby County as well and won with 34% of the vote. John McCain carried Knoxville and its suburbs and got his highest percentage in the county that includes Fort Campbell, for a total of 32%. Mitt Romney carried most of metro Nashville and got 24%.
|111th Congress: 5 D, 4 R|
Tennessee’s Democratic Legislature controlled redistricting after the 2000 census, since Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s veto could be overridden by majority votes in both houses. The plan provided critical votes to Democrat Lincoln Davis in the open Republican 4th district in 2002, and he has held the district since. It also strengthened Bart Gordon in the 6th district. It was not clear in early 2009 which party would control redistricting after the 2010 census, or whether either party would. Republicans currently have a 19-14 majority in the state Senate. They also have a narrow 50-49 majority in the state House, but the minority Democrats have an inordinate amount of power. They successfully maneuvered in early 2009 to elect their own candidate as speaker, Republican Kent Williams, who cooperated in the plot. Democrats banded together to vote for Williams for speaker, and then he cast the deciding vote for himself. Williams got no votes from fellow Republicans.