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

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