Battleground no longer: Here’s the Almanac of American Politics’ overview of Tennessee

(Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest edition of the Almanac of American Politics declares Tennessee’s battleground days to be in the past. The folks over at the Almanac have graciously given the TNJ: On the Hill blog permission to post this sneak peak at the state profile to be published in the latest edition, which comes out in August. Stay tuned for a profile of first-year Gov. Bill Lee later this week. 

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, two of the tradition’s prime exemplars — Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — are now out of politics, succeeded in 2018 by harder-edge conservative Republicans. A third, Sen. Lamar Alexander, announced that he would not run in 2020, leaving another seat likely to be filled by a more ideological warrior. Tennessee is almost 500 miles across, closer in the east to Dover Delaware than to Memphis, and closer in the west to Dallas Texas 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 President Donald Trump made a pilgrimage to his gravesite and keeps his portrait in a prominent spot in the White House.)

A visitor walks by the tomb of James K. Polk tomb in Nashville on March 13, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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 fourth in tobacco production and in the top five states for tomatoes and snap beans.) 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 1960, John Lewis, a student at Nashville’s Fisk University, 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 protesters. 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. Against this backdrop were business leaders who created the first supermarket (Piggly Wiggly), Holiday Inn and Moon Pies, and who made FedEx a global leader. 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 is now one of the country’s major tourist destinations.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville), left, and Gov. Bill Haslam attend an event at the state Capitol in Nashville. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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, as did the relative lack of bitter racial discord, 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 new midsize crossover SUV. Among domestic producers, General Motors built the short-lived Saturn, a cult favorite, at Spring Hill; the plant is now producing the GMC Acadia SUV and the Cadillac XT6. All told, the state’s factories now produce a new car every 20 seconds, and the broader auto industry, including suppliers, employs 134,000 people at more than 900 establishments in 88 of the state’s 95 counties. Automotive exports totaled $5.8 billion in 2017, up 59 percent since 2010.

The state’s population has grown 6.5 percent since 2010, with especially rapid expansion in the Nashville area. Davidson County grew by 10.7 percent, while suburban Rutherford and Williamson counties increased by 19.1 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively. In 2018, the economic-analysis firm POLICOM rated Nashville fourth among the nation’s metro areas in “economic strength,” up from 10th the previous two years. Meanwhile, the populations of Knox County (Knoxville) and Hamilton County (Chattanooga) grew by mid-to-high single digit percentages during the same span; among big counties, only Shelby County (Memphis) lagged with growth of 1.6 percent. Tennessee’s population is 17 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic; it has almost 327,000 immigrants, about 5 percent of the state population. Tennessee ranks among the bottom 10 states in median income and in the attainment of bachelor’s degrees, and the 2018 edition of America’s Health Rankings placed Tennessee 42nd in overall health status, due in part to high rates of obesity and smoking. In 2018, 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.

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, but he lived to see his son twice elected vice president before his death in 1998. As the Democrats’ cultural liberalism strained the ancestral loyalties of rural voters in West and Middle Tennessee, and as the surging growth in the ring of counties around Nashville created a new voting bloc that was conservative both economically and culturally, Republicans gained the upper hand. In 2004, as George W. Bush was handily carrying the state, Tennessee voters elected a Republican majority in the state Senate. By 2012, with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, Republicans won supermajorities in both chambers. In the space of a decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to barely being relevant in the capital. Now, the American Conservative Union ranks the Tennessee legislature as the nation’s most conservative. The rump Democratic Party has become largely urban and more progressive as old-style conservative Democrats have died or become Republicans. The only significant base of power for Democrats at the moment is in mayoral offices, which they now hold in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. This political lineup was reinforced in the 2016 presidential election, which Trump won by 26 points.

Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn speaks at a rally in Franklin on Oct. 17, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The 2018 elections may have 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 by 11 and 21 points, respectively. The winning party label may not have changed, but the brand of Republicanism did. Both Blackburn and Lee, along with the incoming state House speaker, Glen Casada, hail from Williamson County in Middle Tennessee, and all of them articulate a more confrontational message than was typical of politicians in the East Tennessee mold, such as former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker, former Sen. Bill Brock, Alexander, Corker and Haslam. Places like Williamson County are “white, affluent and in the past decade have been a breeding ground for Tea Party supporters,” wrote Tennessee political journalist Steve Cavendish. Just months into his speakership, Casada said he would step down in August amid controversy over lewd text messages.

The other pattern that can be seen in the 2018 electoral returns is the widening divergence between Tennessee’s rural and urban areas. Even as moderate former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen was losing the Senate race to Blackburn by double digits, he performed strongly in the state’s most populous counties. Between the 2012 and 2018 Senate races, Bredesen not only flipped Davidson County, where he had served as mayor of Nashville, but he shifted the county’s margin of victory 46 percentage points in the Democrats’ direction. In strongly Democratic Shelby County, Bredesen shifted the Democratic margin of victory by 25 percentage points, and while Blackburn did manage to win both Hamilton and Knox counties, the former governor whittled the GOP margins of victory in those counties by 36 and 44 percentage points, respectively. Even in Williamson County, Blackburn’s home base, the GOP margin of victory fell from 59 points in the 2012 Senate race to 19 points in the 2018 race, with Bredesen jolting the Democratic vote total by 150 percent. Still, the outlook remains grim for Democrats. The performance of Karl Dean, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, lagged Bredesen’s, and even the gains notched in the Senate race by Bredesen — an unusually well-known and respected candidate — weren’t enough to come within single digits of Blackburn. Prior to the election, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin framed the Senate race as “a test of whether Tennessee will remain politically distinct or become just one more reliably red bastion, like Mississippi to the south or Kentucky to the north.” For now, it looks like the latter.

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit

14 Responses to Battleground no longer: Here’s the Almanac of American Politics’ overview of Tennessee

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    Silence Dogood says:

    Great article. Thanks.

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    James White says:

    Nothing about the Communists’ Highlander Folk School ? I read somewhere in the last week where an off shoot of that group is training ‘social democrats’ (afntifa and all)

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      Wolf Woman says:

      Good comment, James. The Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center, is still a player in the socialist/communist movement. Myles Horton, one of its founders, studied sociology at the Univ. of Chicago and was an early labor union and community organizer. The school follows Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals play book. HREC is associated with Community Shares, an alliance of socialist/progressive orgs including TIRRC who wants Nashville and Tennessee to welcome and financially support illegal aliens.

      The sociology department at Vanderbilt was infiltrated years ago by Dan Cornfield,a sociologist also from Chicago and the legislature has been lobbied for years by his wife, fellow traveler Hedi Weinburg of the ACLU. As early as the mid ’80’s, Vanderbilt gave a master’s degree in sociology to a man on the basis of his paper on turning Nashville’s politics socialist.

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    Stuart I. Anderson says:

    The article makes wonderful reading, I especially like the part that describes the Tennessee Democratic Party as “The rump Democratic Party. . . .” but I am a bit nervous about corporations from California and New York coming into Tennessee. I console myself into thinking that not many leftists from liberal hellholes like California or New York would dream of moving to Tennessee, but one can’t be certain. I wish there was some way of giving prospective transferring employees of these relocating corporations an ideological test before their transfer is approved to make sure that they aren’t carrying with them the voting pathologies that have made California and New York increasing uninhabitable and no place from which to do business.

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    Jerry McDonough says:

    Great article that needed writing. Thanks.

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    Linda Caldwell says:

    How precious. Williamson County is the new Mississippi.

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    Eddie White says:

    Surprised the article did not reference the 2000 election. Gore would have been elected president if he had won his native state….

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    David Collins says:

    It’s sad really. Anytime one party, I don’t care which one, totally dominates the legislative branch of government, the people lose. Once party gets that kind of foothold, then one by one they sell their souls to the lobbyists and special interests. When districts are drawn “party-blind” where they are truly competitive, candidates who really reflect the will of the people in that district get elected and such people are always mindful of the consensus will of their district. When districts are skewed via gerrymandering then a lot of the people living in that district get ignored. I know that party zealots love lop-sided government but such an attitude just proves my point. These zealots are more interested in their party than they are the true well being of their state or country.

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      Stuart I. Anderson says:

      David, you have convinced me of your “good government” bona fides, but in your zeal for good government you make a foolish generalization. Candidates elected from gerrymandered districts reflect the will of the majority of voters who elected them just as effectively as candidates chosen from “party-blind” districts, why wouldn’t this be true?

      I live in a gerrymandered district that is overwhelmingly Republican, I am happy to say, so the Democrats usually don’t bother running a candidate but there is a very active Republican primary for the Republican nomination when the seat is open and when there are a lot of satisfied Republican constituents there is no contested primary nor general election. The miniscule number of liberals in the district are not happy but that’s the fate of minorities in a democracy no matter how the districts are drawn. The majority of voters get precisely the candidate “who really reflects the will of the people in that district” so cheer up because there is no reason for you to be sad.

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        Richard Hoos says:

        If “the will of the people” (polls from 2018 and 2019) were being expressed, we’d have expanded Medicaid, stricter gun controls, more restrictions on tobacco, legal medical marijuana, and support for immigrants, especially the Dreamers. AND yes, probably no abortions at all, although the poll numbers are surprisingly close. Given the choice I wonder how many voters would choose to remain at the bottom of the country in health and expenditures on education. The definition of gerrymander is “to manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.” Andrew Jackson and you may like the spoils system, and life is certainly great in Williamson County, but what we have is not exactly an inspiring form of democracy.

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    Michael Lottman says:

    It is touching to see that some people can still get themselves agitated about the Highlander Folk School, which once performed a valuable theoretical and educational role in the American civil rights movement, but now simply cannot be considered a “player” in a state which has turned bright red–the new red, not the old one–and in which even very moderate Democrats cannot elect anyone to any position of real significance. I really wouldn’t worry about the communist overthrow of the Tennessee state government any time soon. On the other hand, it is sad to see that some people hasten to label anyone they disagree with as communist, socialist, radical, fellow traveler, etc., instead of listening to what others have to say and seeing if any of it make sense. I have my own idea about the ACLU and other such “fellow travelers”–how quaint!– today, and I can only wish that any of them posed the tiniest threat to the status quo in this morally and fiscally bankrupt state and its inert political leadership.

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    William R. Delzell says:

    Regarding the 2018 defeat of Bredesen by Blackburn, it is my contentiion that Bredesen’s attempts to out-Conservative the G.O.P. backfired on him. Not only did he fail to win over a majority of conservatives and extreme rightists, but he ended up alienating many progressives and leftists who might have supported him. His support for Cavanough played a major role of putting the final nail into his coffin. He did worse that slightly less conservative Democrat Harold Ford, Jr. Ford, Jr. came very close to winning the 2006 general election. Contrary to what many people think, I don’t think it was his race that ultimately defeated him–after all, he did far better than Bredesen would do twelve years later; and he did well over a dozen points better than Congressman Cooper did against Fred Thompson in 1994. Both Bredesen and Cooper were white! They both played the right-wing Conservative card and lost by huge margins to Republican challengers because liberals and other progressives were angry at the attempts by these three Democrats to take progressives and liberals for granted while attempting to pander to the G.O.P.

    In order for progressives of either party to win in Tennessee, at least two things would have to happen. Number one, the Conservatives would have to unwittingly cause some disaster that would burn several of their conservative constituents, and number two; Democrats would have to mount a progressive (not copy-cat Republican) platform that could find issues where both progressives and disaffected supporters of Conservative Republicans could agree on. A few examples would include Georgia in 1942 whose conservative governor, Eugene Talmadge, caused the University of Georgia’s chief white flag-ship campus to lose its accreditation. That disaster opened the door for a progressive candidate even by northern standards, Ellis Arnall, to come to power and to successfully enact lots of progressive legislation by an otherwise conservative electorate. This anti-conservative backlash was only temporary but still long enough to enable home grown progressives in a Deep South state during the WW2 to actually pass some far-reaching progressive legislation.

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    William R. Delzell says:

    I might also add that Tennessee, at one time, had some relatively progressive Republican Congresspersons up until the early 1960’s. From the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s, Tennessee had two Republican Congresspersons, Reece and Jennings (later Baker, Sr.–the father of the future Senator Baker) who, unlike many Southeastern Democrats, voted with mid-western isolationists like Senator Taft against peacetime male conscription several times: 1940; 1941; 1948; and again in 1952). They also supported efforts at a Federal Anti-Lynching law during the forties. During the 1950’s, East Tennessee’s Congressional Republicans compiled pro-civil rights records by voting against the pro-segregationist Southern Manifesto and by supporting both the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills that would pass Congress. Although both died before the passage of the 1964, 1965, and 1968 civil rights bills, they still showed a pro-civil rights record. Howard Baker, Sr., who succeeded John Jennings as Second District Congressperson (Knoxville area) would compile a 100% score from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1956 and a ca. 75% score a year or two later by the same organization. None of this hurt him politically.

    Baker, Sr’s wife who filled out the last portion of his latest term upon his death, was far more conservative than her husband. But the son, Howard Baker, Jr., although more conservative than his father, was well to the left of his mother. In his first unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in a special 1964 election against an openly pro-civil rights Democrat named Ross Bass, he blamed his narrow loss not on liberals but on right-wing extremists like Barry Goldwater (that year’s Republican Presidential nominee) and on others like Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Goldwater did far worse than Baker or than Dan Kirkendall (who had unsuccessfully challenged Albert Gore, Sr.). Goldwater’s negative coat tails dragged Baker, Jr. and Kirkendall down to narrow defeat. Conversely, Lyndon Johnson’s strong POSITIVE coat-tails barely rescued Ross Bass and Albert Gore, Sr. from otherwise defeat.

    Baker’s criticism of Goldwater and Reagan would ultimately serve him well two years later when Baker, Jr. managed to sow together a coalition of blacks, some liberal whites, blue collar workers, public utility activists, environmentalists, and East Tennessee mountain Republicans into a winning majority against a conservative Democrat nominee, Frank Clement. As Senator, Baker Jr., although usually conservative, would break with conservatives on several occasions to support the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967 and to play a major role in passing the 1968 Fair Housing Act against bitter right wing opposition. In 1976, he would play a major role in helping President Gerald Ford in beating Ronald Reagan in that year’s state Republican Presidential Primary. He also bucked the far right of the G.O.P. in helping to pass the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977.

    These were examples where Tennessee Republicans during an earlier era successfully worked with progressives against right-wing extremists and still managing to survive and to thrive politically.

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