In this dopey election season with the blowout governor's race, we actually are witnessing something historic: the probable end of the competitive two-party political system in Tennessee.
This troubling development for democracy will come as a shock to many voters after next week's elections. That's because, in one of the worst political malpractices ever committed, no one is telling them about it.
Rather than talking about the need for choice in elections — and warning about the crazy stuff Republicans will do if given free rein — Tennessee Democrats stubbornly have stuck to their playbook of campaigns past (as dreadfully unsuccessful as it has been). That is, they have masqueraded as Republicans — not really Democrats at all, but God-fearing, Nancy Pelosi-hating good ol' boys just like their opponents.
So how's that working out for them? The once-almighty party of Andrew Jackson and Al Gore is about to take a knockout punch and drop like a sack of potatoes into the irrelevant status of Democrats in Mississippi, Alabama and nearly all the rest of the South.
The Tennessee congressional delegation could flip in one fell swoop from 5-4 Democratic to 7-2 Republican. Among the seats the party will surrender — indeed, is almost ceding to the Republicans — is the 6th District, the place that gave Gore his start.
In West Tennessee's 8th District, state Sen. Roy Herron is campaigning as a "truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, gospel-preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy." If elected, he vows to vote against Pelosi as House speaker, in the unlikely event that Democrats retain control of that chamber.
Yet Herron's losing to a previously unknown farmer named Stephen Fincher. Fincher rails against federal spending but accepts millions in agriculture subsidies. He refuses to debate or even talk to reporters or to answer the most obvious questions about his suspicious personal and campaign finances.
In the sprawling 4th District in eastern Tennessee, you wouldn't know the three-term incumbent, Lincoln Davis, is even a Democrat unless you had been paying close attention. He runs as an "independent conservative" and famously vowed that no one ever would "out-God or out-gun" him. One of his TV ads features Pelosi's name with a red slash through it.
Still, he's locked in a knock-down-drag-out fight with a family physician named Scott DesJarlais, a political neophyte with apparent anger-management issues. In divorce papers, he was accused by his first wife of firing an unloaded gun outside her bedroom door and of holding the gun to his mouth for three hours.
Henceforth in this state, Democratic congressmen can feel safe only in urban and/or predominantly black districts (i.e., Nashville and Memphis). But that's merely the beginning of the party's troubles. Even more distressing to Democrats is what's about to happen in state legislative races.
Republicans, already in firm control of the state Senate, hold realistic hopes for gaining up to six seats in the House. That would give the party a commanding 56-seat majority, with far-reaching effects for redistricting when Republicans try to gerrymander Democrats out of existence next year. Among the Democratic seats in jeopardy is the one surrendered by the retiring Ben West this year in Hermitage.
Yes, that's how bad it's gotten. Even Old Hickory's home is under siege.
The Scene's interviews with the state's two party chairmen were telling. "We feel good about holding the line," Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester offered optimistically, possibly clicking his heels like Dorothy as he said it. That still would leave Democrats two votes short of recapturing the House — and that's the good news?
GOP chairman Chris Devaney, on the other hand, said flatly that he's confident Republicans will win enough House seats to do what they want without worrying about Democrats much anymore.
"That's been my goal," Devaney said. "We're going to build a working majority so the Republican governor can pass his agenda and so we can have a Republican speaker elected by the House caucus. To be assured of all that, you need a pretty good margin. We're going to build a big enough majority that we're not going to have to worry about some of these issues."
Dragging down the Democrats is the hapless candidate at the top of their ticket, Mike McWherter, who trails Bill Haslam in the governor's race — incredibly — by as many as 30 points in the polls.
McWherter's campaign has fit the 2010 Democratic model perfectly — lackadaisical and inept. He did so little campaigning early in the race that the state GOP's designated tracker — a kid assigned to videotape the Democrat's appearances in search of exploitable flubs — couldn't find much of anything to do, Devaney says.
"McWherter was nonexistent," Devaney recalls. "Mike McWherter is a weak gubernatorial candidate, and he's expected to lead their ticket? Well, he's just not doing a very good job of that."
The Nashville media's go-to guy for political quotes — Channel 5 analyst Pat Nolan — thinks McWherter might set a new low-mark for Democratic futility, doing worse even than John Jay Hooker's 30 percent in 1998. The ancient Hooker wore an Abe Lincoln costume and didn't spend a nickel on his campaign.
"If this was a prize fight, it would be stopped and the mercy rule invoked," Nolan wrote in one of his weekly columns, adding that it's enough to make Democrats feel "sick to their stomachs" about what could happen in legislative elections.
In their ludicrous mailers in state House races, Republicans are trying to saddle their foes with the Obama-Pelosi agenda, whatever that is. Even bumpkin Democrats who wouldn't know Pelosi if they ran into her at a cockfight are supposedly plotting with the president and the House speaker to ram socialism down our throats.
Democrats, meanwhile, are struggling to articulate a raison d'être. Their basic message? They promise to bring home the bacon to the folks back home in the form of better roads and bridges — a variation on the old chicken-in-every-pot theme. But it seems ill-suited in this year of anti-government anger. Democrats also seem to have forgotten that they no longer run the legislature. The GOP controls access to the pig trough now.
Democrats around the country are painting Tea Party-backed Republicans as extremists. That's a tactic that might work here — if Democrats would only try it. In its first two years in power since Civil War Reconstruction, the GOP helpfully offered up several lines of attack for Democrats to exploit.
Republicans took the first step to strip abortion rights out of the state constitution. Under their plan, a woman would be forced to have the baby even of her rapist. If this were a campaign issue, the famous Democratic "enthusiasm gap" would have vanished long ago. There's much more ammo for Democrats:
• With the jobless rate running around 10 percent, the House Republicans' No. 2 guy — Rep. Glen Casada of College Grove — tried to pass legislation to kill additional unemployment benefits for women with children. Asked in a committee how mothers are supposed to feed their children, Casada scoffed: "... [F]ind you a job is what I suggest." It was all conveniently captured on YouTube, for any enterprising young Democratic campaign operatives out there.
• Here's another YouTube gem: Republican Rep. Mike Bell, a home-schooling hillbilly, led the GOP's silly charge to nullify national health care reform. He actually suggested that people could pay their medical bills with sacks of vegetables, like the Mennonites do in his district.
• Republicans tried to weaken standards for the amount of selenium that coal mines may release into Tennessee streams. Critics warned it could cause massive fish and wildlife kills and jeopardize human health, too. Nevertheless, the GOP's chairman of the House Environment Committee, Joe McCord, assured his colleagues that selenium is perfectly safe. Why, it's so good for you they put it in vitamin pills! You need "your daily dose of selenium," McCord said. You first, Joe.
Republicans also tried to delete funding to combat the state's tragically high rate of infant mortality. Do you think that's a winning campaign issue? And how about guns? The legislature made Tennessee a national laughingstock by enacting laws allowing guns in bars and guns in parks and playgrounds. Belatedly, McWherter has discovered this issue, slamming Haslam for saying he'd sign legislation to completely deregulate handguns and let yahoos pack heat all over the state wherever they please, no questions asked.
If Democrats had made these cases against Republicans from the beginning, they might be doing better with voters. Which is too bad. Unless a miracle happens on Election Day, they won't be around much longer to learn from the lessons of their defeats.