published Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Tennessee GOP eyes big gains



Voters enter the Hamilton County Election Commission building in this file photo.
Voters enter the Hamilton County Election Commission building in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Fortified with huge campaign war chests, new legislative districts and Tennessee voters' opposition to President Barack Obama, state Republicans see a good chance of seizing a "supermajority" in the General Assembly on Nov. 6.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said the GOP has an "excellent shot" at picking up as many as six seats, knocking minority Democrats from 13 to just seven in the 33-member chamber.

"Things are going well," said Ramsey, the lieutenant governor. "I feel very comfortable we'll have a supermajority."

Republicans already have 20 Senate seats. Adding just two more would give them a two-thirds majority, which would mean they could suspend rules at will and ignore Democratic opposition. In fact, there's talk among Republicans about a "super-duper" majority.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said Republicans have 64 seats now and could win as many as 10 more in the 99-member chamber. Just three more seats would give House Republicans more than 66 members, or a two-thirds majority.

Embattled Democrats now have 34 seats. The lone House independent usually sides with Republicans.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, concedes the path ahead is tough for his party.

"They've outspent us in some places 7-to-1," Turner said. "They've got the redistricting map the way they want it. They've got a lot of support. They got a [Democratic] president who's not real popular in Tennessee, although he's more popular than he was several years ago."

But Turner said that while "a lot of things are going their way ... at the same time we're being very competitive in certain areas. We have six or seven seats that are really in play and as many as eight."

None is in Hamilton County, Turner acknowledged.

"Unfortunately, the guys [Republicans] down there are well-heeled," Turner said. "Hamilton County, we just couldn't do it for whatever reason. Those guys have been there for a while, and they're pretty well entrenched."

Local strength

The fact that some local Republicans are in the House leadership also makes things tough, Turner said.

Locally, Democrat Larry Miller dropped out of his contest with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, after Miller accepted an out-of-state job offer.

Turner also pointed to Republican House Floor Leader Vince Dean, R-East Ridge. He faces Democrat Sandy Smith, who has struggled with fundraising.

Turner doubts Republicans will gain 10 new seats in the House, although redistricting got them there on paper.

"They're at 74 today," he said of Republican-leaning districts. "So if they come back with anything less than 74, we've had a pretty good campaign. I think we're going to hold them under 70. I think we'll be able to do it, but they've got everything going their way. It's going to take divine intervention, I think, for that to happen."

But Turner charged that House Republicans "have picked the worst rogues' gallery of candidates I've ever seen."

According to The Tennessee Journal, a nonpartisan political newsletter, Republicans stand to gain up to seven House seats. In the Senate, the newsletter estimates they could win three to six seats.

Two previous Democratic seats in Southeast Tennessee now are leaning Republican, according to the Journal.

That would be the race for Senate District 10 (parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties) where GOP nominee Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga, is favored over Democrat Andraé McGary, a Chattanooga councilman who has struggled with contributions.

Democrats privately have said all along that the seat, now held by Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, would be lost after Republicans removed Democratic-leaning Marion County and replaced it with Republican-heavy Bradley County.

But Democrats had high hopes of keeping the seven-county Senate District 16.

The currently Democratic district features Republican Janice Bowling, of Tullahoma, and former Democratic Sen. Jim Lewis, of Kimball. The district includes Marion, Sequatchie, Grundy, Warren, Van Buren, Coffee and Franklin counties.

Flush with resources, state Republicans have pounded Lewis over his description of himself as an "American, secular-humanist, pinko-commie, bleeding heart liberal Democrat."

Lewis said in a recent interview he began calling himself that some years back because "that string of words together pushes every Republican button that exists. And as you know, I just love pushing Republican buttons."

Lately, the GOP has hit Lewis for his support of a state income tax, which he addressed in a website post this month.

"I know a lot of people are freaking out because I favor a state income tax," he said. "I know it is not popular. So why would anyone be fool enough to mention it during a campaign? Well, it's really simple; first, I want to be honest with you, and second, I want Tennessee to lead the nation and our nation to lead the world."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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