Game-changer. That’s what Congressman John Tanner's retirement is. It has and will profoundly affect state politics at every level. Already the news has dramatically altered Democratic primary fortunes in the 2010 governor's race, and it will ripple into other contests too.
Most significantly, state Sen. Roy Herron (D-Dresden) has announced that he has dropped out of the governor's race and into the race to fill a congressional seat that he has long coveted. The sudden move is probably infuriating to some Herron supporters in East and Middle Tennessee who had already donated time and, more significantly, money to his campaign. Herron, a squeaky-clean pastor and lawyer, had been racking up straw poll wins all across the state and had been establishing himself as the Democratic frontrunner.
And with his departure from the governor's race, there is one clear winner and one clear loser in the Democratic primary.
The winner is Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter. As the sole rural West Tennessee candidate, McWherter can expect the spoils of significant financial support that had been tied up by his former opponent.
On the losing end of the new math is state Sen. Jim Kyle. The Memphis lawmaker had been banking on a split rural West Tennessee vote between McWherter and Herron that will now not materialize. Add that together with the fact that historically rural West voters aren't known to support Memphis Democrats when they have one of their own in the race, and Kyle’s in real trouble.
And then there’s fundraising. McWherter, with his new infusion of Herron cash, should be able to increase his traction among political donors. But Unless Kyle resigns from office to get around the state’s political finance rules (which is highly unlikely), he will have to cease all fundraising when the legislature reconvenes in January.
For his part, Herron will get the benefit of the doubt from his most ardent supporters regarding his change of heart because they know how long he’s wanted to serve in the U.S. Congress. It is unlikely, though, that his congressional decision automatically clears the field of other major West Tennessee Democrats. He’ll have to make personal appeals to the likes of state Sen. Lowe Finney, state Reps. Jimmy Naifeh, Judy Barker, Craig Fitzhugh, Mark Maddox, former state Rep. Phillip Pinion and Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman, to name a few, to keep primary challengers at bay.
Herron is known to be a hard campaigner and great on the stump, but his style is far from intimidating.
In fact, Republicans both in Washington and in Tennessee are punch drunk with the idea of picking up Tanner's congressional seat, though they might want to check their bravado at the door.
Upon Tanner's announcement, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee released a chest-beating statement saying that their candidate, Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Tenn., had scared Tanner out of the race.
“Rather than face Fincher and make tortured excuses for his liberal party’s job-killing agenda, Rep. Tanner wisely threw in the towel,” NRCC spokesman Andy Seré said. “Ambitious Democrats now pondering a run should ask themselves: if a longtime incumbent who had gone unchallenged for two decades was terrified of losing next year, how could they possibly win over West and Middle Tennessee just as it’s fleeing Obama’s party in droves?”
Anyone who seriously believes that Fincher or the fear of talking about the policies of President Barack Obama scared Tanner, might want to take up frog jumping for a living. It's academic now, but the only way Tanner would have lost the support of Eighth District voters would have been with redistricted congressional boundaries in 2012. And, even then, unseating Tanner still would have been a tough fight for a Republican. Tanner is just that strong in the West.
It will be interesting to see if Republicans throw Fincher under the bus too. There are other, more prominent Republicans in the district who have been biding their time. At the very least, the daily drone of press statements from Washington Republican Party operatives touting Fincher will become more generic until it’s certain another GOP candidate isn't getting in the race.
And despite the growing influence of the Republican Party in recent years, Tennessee Democrats have a deep bench in rural West Tennessee. The majority of state House and state Senate members in Tanner's district are Democrats with deep roots. If Democratic Congressmen like Bart Gordon or Lincoln Davis decided to retire this year, then those seats would almost certainly go Republican. This seat, however, will still lean Democrat short of redistricting.
It is true that this district went for McCain and politicos from Washington will try to divine some national meaning from that, Tanner’s departure, and Obama’s popularity in the region. Those who do make that leap really are from “inside the beltway” and don’t know the features of this battleground.
Republicans are at a bit of a disadvantage in that two of their big-name West Tennessee officeholders, state Sens. Mark Norris and Delores Gresham, represent large parts of Tanner’s district but actually live in Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn’s district. That could easily change in two years with new boundary lines.
That isn't to say a Republican can't win the seat now, but the continued incompetence of Democratic campaigns would be the biggest asset Fincher or any GOP candidate could get. That is actually more important to Republican victory than Obama bashing and tea parties.
Finally, Herron's move to the governor’s race could be of benefit to one major Republican gubernatorial candidate as well.
Asked who he’d support in the governor's race now, a well-heeled Herron donor said, "I'm going to listen to the first person who calls me, but I might start up a chapter of Democrats for Bill Haslam."