Ascendant GOP, rump Democrats: Read the Almanac of American Politics’ Tennessee profile

The folks over at the Almanac of American Politics have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at its latest political profile of Tennessee:

Tennessee, once a political battleground, is no longer. It has become one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, with just a few pockets of blue in its biggest cities. And while Tennessee has long been home to an influential strain of moderate Republicanism, the tradition’s most recent exemplars—Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam—are now out of politics, succeeded by more solidly conservative Republicans.

Tennessee is almost 500 miles across, closer in the east to Delaware than to Memphis, and closer in the west to Dallas than to Johnson City. It has had a fighting temperament since the days before the Revolutionary War, when the first settlers crossed the Appalachian ridges and headed for the rolling country in the watersheds of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Tennessee became a state in 1796, the third state after the original 13. Its first congressman was a 29-year-old lawyer who was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants: Andrew Jackson. Jackson, who killed two men in duels, was a general who led Tennessee volunteers—it’s still called the Volunteer State—to battle against the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and against the British at New Orleans in 1815. He was the first president from an interior state, elected in 1828 and 1832, and was a founder of the Democratic Party, now the oldest political party in the world. Jackson was a strong advocate of the union, but 16 years to the day after his death, Tennessee voted to join the Confederacy. (Today, Jackson’s own party largely disowns him, while Donald Trump lionized him.)

Tennessee is a state with a certain civility: Both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on Sarah Polk, the widow of President James K. Polk who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Yet it was better known as 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. (Today, the state ranks third in tobacco production and ninth in cotton.) Tennessee is also known for the momentous 1925 trial in Dayton in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes defied a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools. In 1959 and 1960, Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson trained a generation of student civil rights activists, notably John Lewis, a student at Nashville’s Fisk University; they organized sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters at Kress, Woolworth and McClellan stores. The protests sparked confrontations, arrests and ultimately a bombing that destroyed the home of the defense attorney for the protestors. That prompted Nashville Mayor Ben West to make a public appeal calling for an end to discrimination in the city. Within a few weeks, stores began to integrate their lunch counters and Nashville later became the first major city in the South to desegregate public facilities. The campaign became a template for student-run civil rights efforts throughout the South that Lewis, who eventually became a Georgia congressman, would heroically lead. (Lewis died in 2020.) Against this backdrop were business leaders who created the first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, as well as brands as varied as Holiday Inn, FedEx, and Moon Pies. The New Deal-era creation of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority also provided the state with bountiful energy, from a mix of coal, nuclear and hydropower plants.

Music is another strong Tennessee tradition. East Tennessee is one of the original homes of bluegrass music and mountain fiddling. Gospel music has long been centered in Nashville, which is also home to the Southern Baptist Convention and a center for religious publishing; justifiably, Nashville is known as the “buckle of the Bible Belt.” Country music got its commercial start in Nashville, with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium in 1925, and it remains the capital of country music today. 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 Elvis Presley and countless other rock ‘n’ roll musicians beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Presley’s Graceland mansion remains one of the country’s major tourist destinations.

While Tennessee’s economy trailed the nation’s through much of the 20th century, its open climate for entrepreneurism enabled it to grow mightily in the 1980s and 1990s. The absence of strong unions made Tennessee attractive to business; in 2020, it was chosen by Area Development magazine as the second-best state for doing business, trailing only neighboring Georgia. The relative lack of bitter racial discord was a factor as well, with the obvious exception being the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968. Alexander, governor through most of the 1980s, was a deft salesman in his efforts to bring foreign auto plants to Middle Tennessee; Nissan opened a plant in Smyrna, south of Nashville, where the land was flat and the bedrock was strong. It has since built another and relocated its U.S. headquarters to Tennessee. Volkswagen built a $1 billion “green” plant for the Passat in Chattanooga that, after a $900 million investment, is now being used to build the Atlas, a midsize crossover SUV, and is now being fitted to produce an electric vehicle. (In both 2014 and 2019, workers at the Volkswagen plant rejected a unionization effort.) Among domestic producers, General Motors built the short-lived Saturn, a cult favorite, at Spring Hill; the plant is now producing the Cadillac XT5 and XT6 and the GMC Acadia. Meanwhile, Nashville has become a tech center since Dell Computer built its second major U.S. facility there in 1999. It’s also a health care hub, led by HCA and Vanderbilt University.

Tennessee’s population has grown 8.9 percent since 2010, with especially rapid expansion in the Nashville area. Davidson County, which includes Nashville, grew by 10.6 percent, while the suburbs grew even more rapidly—growth of almost 30 percent in Williamson County, 26 percent in Rutherford and Wilson counties, and almost 19 percent in Sumner County. The economic-analysis firm POLICOM rated Nashville fourth among the nation’s metro areas in “economic strength” for 2021. Meanwhile, the populations of Knox County (Knoxville) and Hamilton County (Chattanooga) grew 8.6 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively, and Blount County, south of Knoxville, grew 8 percent. Among the state’s largest counties, only Shelby County (Memphis) lagged, with growth of less than 1 percent; the poverty rate in the city of Memphis is 25 percent, higher than any of Tennessee’s other three big cities.

Tennessee ranks among the bottom 10 states in median income, the attainment of bachelor’s degrees, and health status as measured by America’s Health Rankings; it has high rates of obesity and smoking. The Nashville area experienced twin disasters in 2020—an outbreak of EF3 and EF4 tornadoes in March that caused at least 20 fatalities and an estimated $1 billion in damage, and a downtown bombing by a troubled man in an RV on Christmas Day, damaging dozens of buildings. The liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy rated Tennessee’s tax system the nation’s sixth most regressive, thanks in large part to its heavy reliance on the sales tax, which does not exempt food and clothing. (Tennesseans seem to prefer it; in 2014, voters by an almost a 2-1 margin ratified a constitutional amendment banning the adoption of any state or local personal income or payroll tax.) Tennessee was ahead of the curve in offering free community college or technical school to all high school graduates, in a bill signed by Haslam in 2014. Demand quickly exceeded expectations for the program, which chiefly benefits lower-income and working-class families. “The way they talk about free college in Tennessee is very different than the way they talk about free college on the Democratic side,” Kim Dancy of the Institute for Higher Education Policy told Politico. “It wasn’t as strongly associated with Democratic politics at that time. I would be very surprised if a Republican governor was able to do this today.”

For more than a century, Tennessee’s political divisions were rooted in Civil War loyalties. In two referenda on secession (one that failed in February 1861 and one that embraced it in June after the attack on Fort Sumter) most East Tennessee counties voted heavily for the Union and have remained heavily Republican ever since. Pro-secession counties in Middle and West Tennessee long voted heavily Democratic. Reform-minded liberal Democrats Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr. became national figures, with reliable enough backing from Tennessee’s yellow-dog Democratic majority to vote for civil rights bills. Gore was defeated in 1970. He died in 1998, but lived to see his son twice elected vice president.

As the Democrats’ cultural liberalism strained the ancestral loyalties of rural voters in West and Middle Tennessee, and as the surging growth around Nashville created a new voting bloc that was conservative both economically and culturally, Republicans gained the upper hand. Gore won his Senate seat in 1990 with two-thirds of the vote, but just 10 years later, he couldn’t win his home state in the presidential election. By 2012, with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, Republicans won supermajorities in both legislative chambers. In the space of a decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to barely being relevant in the capital. By 2018, the American Conservative Union ranked the Tennessee legislature as the nation’s most conservative. The rump Democratic Party has become largely urban and more progressive as oldstyle conservative Democrats have died or become Republicans. The only significant base of power for Democrats is in mayoral offices, which they now hold in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, the state’s four largest cities.

The 2018 elections represented a death blow to a long tradition of pragmatic, technocratic Republicanism. On the strength of Republican support in rural and exurban areas, the GOP candidates for senator and governor—Rep. Marsha Blackburn and businessman Bill Lee—won their races for senator and governor, respectively, by 11 and 21 points, respectively. The winning party label might not have changed, but the brand of Republicanism did: The state’s political elite articulate a more confrontational message than was typical of politicians in the East Tennessee mold, such as former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker, former Sens. Bill Brock, Alexander and Corker, and Haslam.

In 2020, Trump won the state by 23 points, a slightly smaller victory than in 2016, when he won by 26 points. In both elections, Trump lost only three counties: urban Shelby and Davidson, and small, majority-Black Haywood. Joe Biden made incremental gains in the other two big urban counties, narrowing Trump’s winning margin by six points in Hamilton and nine points in Knox. Biden also made 5-to-10-point gains in the suburban counties of Rutherford, Williamson, Sumner, Wilson, and Blount. But even in those counties where the Democrats made modest gains, Trump still won by margins of 16 to 44 points, enough to secure his wide victory in the state. Perhaps an even more illustrative race in 2020 was the primary to succeed Alexander, in which two Republicans, Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi, sought to one-up each other in displays of loyalty to Trump. Hagerty won the primary with Trump’s endorsement, and in November won by 27 points, outrunning Trump slightly. All in all, there’s little sign of significant weakening of the Republican brand in Tennessee.

Presidential Politics

Most of Tennessee is part of the Jacksonian belt of America running along the Appalachians, territory that has turned more and more Republican since 2000. That year, Al Gore carried 36 of its 95 counties and came within four points of carrying his home state. By 2008, Barack Obama carried just six: Memphis’ Shelby County, which is majority African American; Nashville’s Davidson County; and four other small counties. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both won only three: Shelby, Davidson and tiny Haywood, the only other county in the state with a majority-Black population. President Donald Trump defeated Biden, 61%-38%.

Tennessee set its primary on Super Tuesday in 2008, and Clinton defeated Obama 54%-40%. In 2016, she defeated Bernie Sanders 66%-33%. In 2020, Tennessee was one of the states where Michael Bloomberg made the most effort, but Biden won 42%-25% over Sanders, with Bloomberg at 15%. Recent GOP primaries have offered mixed results. In 2008, Mike Huckabee defeated John McCain, 34%-32%, with Mitt Romney third at 24 percent. In 2012, Rick Santorum defeated Romney, 37%-28%. In 2016, Trump defeated Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 39%-25% and carried 94 of the state’s 95 counties.

Congressional Districts

Republicans swept the governorship and both houses of the Tennessee legislature in 2010, earning unbridled authority to reverse the jig-sawed map Democrats had drawn in 2002. Back then, Democrats had created a fragile arrangement that gave them a 5-4 edge for eight years. Tennessee’s cultural shift away from Democrats rendered the map a ticking time bomb even before the next redistricting. In 2010, Republicans defeated one incumbent and had double-digit wins to take two open seats. That gave them 7-2 control of the delegation, which has not been seriously threatened since. In early 2011, there was chatter that Republicans would seek more revenge by splitting Nashville Democrat Jim Cooper’s 5th District four ways. But Republicans determined the move too risky and passed a map strengthening Cooper and straightening most district lines across the state. They had enough maneuvering room to tweak two of the districts to remove potential primary foes for two of their GOP incumbents. Democrats comfortably control the Memphis-based 9th plus the 5th. Of the 45 House elections since 2012, the winner has received at least 60 percent of the vote in each, except for the first two contests in the 4th District.

With Republicans again in firm control, the logical scenario for the next redistricting would be to continue the current map for another decade. The 8th and 9th districts in West Tennessee have grown the least, which likely will require each to extend a bit farther to the east. But the fate of the 5th might be an even more tempting target for Republicans, given their huge majorities in the three adjacent districts in the Nashville metro area, plus Cooper’s narrow victory in the 2020 Democratic primary. Still, the nationwide changes in suburban politics—including parts of the Nashville area– might pose eventual risks for one or two of the GOP incumbents.

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The 2022 Almanac of American Politics 50th Commemorative Edition, will be released in August 2021 and can be purchased online at https://www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com/ or by calling 1-888-265-0600. Use the code “15AAP2022” for a 15% discount during check-out.