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This month’s elections followed a 30-year trend: Republicans gained, Democrats lost and Hamilton County turned a deeper shade of red.
Two long-time incumbents, Public Defender Ardena Garth and Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell, were replaced by Republicans. And the few Democrats who ran gained no ground.
The local left posted no candidates for mayor, and three Republican commission incumbents and a cadre of state representatives floated by, unchallenged by the opposite party.
In 1984, seven of nine commissioners and almost all county elected officials were Democrats, including the sheriff and the county executive (now mayor).
These days, just three county officials represent the county’s blue side: Criminal Court Judge Don Poole and county commissioners Warren Mackey and Greg Beck.
Local Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee said his party didn’t flourish in this election for several reasons.
The Republican challengers started with larger war chests and more support, he said, and hotly contested Republican Congress and Senate races took most of voters’ attention.
And, to tell the truth, the Democrats just didn’t have enough candidates to generate interest, Lee said.
“Money’s not everything, but it is the mother’s milk of politics,” Lee said. “I think people who follow politics and who are interested are going to turn out. Then there’s that voter who supports a particular party or a particular cause, but they need a good, specific reason to get out to vote.”
Lee said he had trouble getting candidates to commit to run, so the local ballot was short for Democrats. And because Mary Headrick had no competition in the primary for her 3rd Congressional District bid, Republicans Weston Wamp and Chuck Fleischmann got all the attention. Republican ballots made up 80 percent of the tickets in the 3rd District congressional races.
The few local races where Democrats had candidates — such as for Criminal Court clerk, public defender and six commission seats — had no up-ticket state primary race to bring people out.
That’s a central problem for county-level Democrats across the state, said Stuart James, former local Democratic Party chairman. It happens every election cycle, he said.
If there is no state-level Democrat facing a primary challenge, Democrats stay home. That’s the trouble with combining local general elections with state primaries, he said.
“If you had county elections in November, I think you would see that we would have four members of the county commision as Democrats, and I think you would have seen a [Democratic] candidate for county mayor,” James said.
But issues can also energize one party more than another, he said.
The city of Chattanooga is usually a Democratic stronghold, but city Republicans turned out in droves to vote against the same-sex partner benefit question on the ballot.
Hamilton County Republican Chairman Tony Sanders doesn’t dispute any of that. But if Democrats can’t get candidates now, he said, moving elections won’t help.
The bottom line, he said, is voters here simply agree with the party of fiscal and social conservatism. Also, it’s not as though local Republicans have waltzed into power over three decades. They’ve worked for it, one election at a time, he said.
“The old-guard Republicans joke that we used to have our meetings in a phone both. But I think what you’ve got to do is look at what we’ve been doing for 30 years. And the message we have is resonating now with voters,” Sanders said.
University of Tennessee political science professor Richard Wilson said the South has been sliding right for decades.
Wilson ran as a Democrat for Hamilton County mayor in a 2012 special election. But for a living, he researches political culture. He says the underlying constant that has shifted politics in the South — including Tennessee — has been driven by perceptions of race and power.
Since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Righs Act of 1964, Southern states have gone from blue, to purple, to red. Another shift right occured in 2008, after the election of President Barack Obama, Wilson said.
There are other factors, he said. The Republican Party has taken ownership of socially conservative stances on abortion, gay rights and prayer in schools, drawing independent social conservatives to the GOP fold. But Wilson said those issues are not as consistent as race.
Wilson stressed that this doesn’t mean every Southern Republican is opposed to equal treatment of black people, or having a black president. But a large enough voting bloc is, he said.
“It’s not everybody, but it’s a significant shift of a large number of votes that have shifted the Republican Party from going strong, to going very strong,” Wilson said.
However, Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said there were too many factors active to pinpoint one cause for the South’s shift to the right that started in the 1960s.
“It’s very often hard to separate those things out. So the change starts with the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act later … that gets linked to some social conservative issues later on,” Oppenheimer said. “But that doesn’t mean something won’t cut across the electorate and cause another shift.”
He said the Northeast and the West Coast, for example, have both gotten bluer over the decades. Politics, like everything else, just changes over time, he said.
“People move around. Democrats move in some places, Republicans move in places. But also new issues come into play that sometimes cut across the electorate,” Oppenheimer said. “In some areas, things are static, but they very rarely remain as static as we think they will. To think that our politics in our area would stay the same is just a mistake.”
Despite big gains for Republicans, they didn’t get everything they wanted in the Aug. 7 election.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey lost his effort to remove some state Supreme Court justices and, by extension, get a Republican attorney general.
Stacy Campfield, perhaps the most nationally quoted right-wing conservative in Tennessee, lost his re-election bid.
And in Hamilton County, Lee says the Democrats learned a lot and made gains this go-round.
“I think we had some very positive developments this year. The best thing that came from this cycle, I think, is we had a group of bright, young people who got involed in school board races,” Lee said. “Better days are ahead. We’ve got some work to do, unfortunately, the elections didn’t turn out as we like.”
“But for sure, Republicans can’t blame the Democrats anymore.”
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...