With almost a year until the 2010 general election, now is the time congressional candidates raise money, staff up and just generally try to stand out as formidable contenders — particularly if they’re challenging incumbents.
In three Tennessee congressional districts, that’s exactly the posture of several Republican candidates. With the state becoming an increasingly deeper shade of crimson and the Democratic Party growing perceptibly more progressive, Democratic incumbents in the Fourth, Sixth and Eighth congressional districts have attracted vigorous, legitimate rivals.
Rep. John Tanner has been without a serious challenge since he was elected to his Eighth District seat back in 1988. To hear Washington's National Congressional Campaign Committee tell it, that's about to change. The national organization responsible for drafting Republicans for seats in districts coast to coast is confident in Stephen Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer who has raised over $300,000 to take on Tanner.
Rep. Lincoln Davis’ rural, conservative Fourth District has always left him somewhat exposed. Though he is popular and takes pains to emphasize his more conservative instincts, distancing himself as best he can from the national Democratic Party, his district’s politics can’t be denied. Any Democrat representing that part of the state may at any time become like a bloody stump in a tank full of piranhas. In 2008, Davis dismissed businessman Monty Lankford handily. But this time, Davis will likely face Jasper’s Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a general practitioner who surprised political watchers by outraising Davis in the third quarter of this year — $97,250 to $67,800.
In the Sixth District, former state House candidate Lou Ann Zelenik generated national buzz with the announcement that she’ll be challenging Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon. Zelenik hasn’t released any fund-raising numbers yet, but as she proved in her state legislative run, she can self-finance. National groups have been pushing her candidacy, and former Tennessee Republican Party chief of staff Mark Winslow has become her volunteer mouthpiece.
So will this be the year? Will 2010 represent an end, or at least an interruption, to the Democrats’ majority among the Tennessee congressional delegation?
But it’s not an indictment of the candidates. Instead, it’s explained by the power of incumbency and the way the political game is played. All the national party chatter about these candidates, all this heat about how these challengers are imposing rivals, the jabber that incumbents are vulnerable and that these races are a priority — it’s all garbage.
The coming year won’t be the one when Republicans take out Davis, Gordon or Tanner, and most Republicans whispering in the ears of these well-funded neophyte challengers know this. And there’s one simple reason: redistricting.
Come 2012, the state’s congressional map will look absolutely nothing like it does today. Most folks expect Republicans to maintain or broaden their margins in the state legislature, which means they will hold the redistricting pen in 2010. They will be able to determine the size and shape of all the congressional districts in question.
The candidates currently running for Congress may be in it to win it, but those who have recruited them into running and are talking them up don't much care either way. For the GOP powers that be, these candidates are pawns in a much bigger game.
The goal for Republicans is not to defeat Gordon, Tanner or Davis. It's to soften them — slowly bleed them. Republicans want to make these members of Congress spend as much of their campaign kitties as they can so that when their districts are carved up they will be powerless to do anything to change their fate in 2012.
John Tanner is sitting on a $1.4 million campaign stockpile. Carve up his district however you like — that's a nice-sized bankroll to make some new friends in new territory. Republicans don't want to go to the trouble of slicing up these districts just to see Democrats hang on by the skin of their teeth.
Republican operators in Washington, D.C., and in Nashville want these congressmen to have legit opponents this year because they want to drain their campaign reserves.
Tanner and Gordon didn't suddenly get their first legitimate primary challengers in a decade by accident. These candidates are tools designed for the express purpose of getting the congressmen to spend down their cash on hand. Nothing more.