Capitol View Commentary: Nov. 7, 2008 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Nov. 7, 2008



By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations

November 7, 2008


Election Night in Tennessee had some surprises after all.

While they boasted it might happened, the state's Republican leadership did NOT really expect to take over the State House. It was like the dog that finally caught the car that it was chasing. Now what?

But take over the State House is what the GOP did by netting four seats in the lower chamber, while also picking up three positions in the Senate, and re-establishing their control of the upper chamber.

And all of that has changed political reality forever on Capitol Hill in Tennessee.

I'll talk more about that a little later in the column.

But first, Tuesday's election also demonstrated that this state and the rest of the country exist in opposing political universes these days. While the country turned blue, decisively electing Barack Obama President and sending more Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate, in Tennessee we turned from red to deep crimson (sorry, UT and Alabama fans), as voters gave Republican Presidential candidate John McCain one of his strongest majorities in the country; sent back Lamar Alexander to the U.S. Senate (one of the few GOP incumbents to return, and with a landslide majority); and then turning both state legislative houses Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. As for the congressional delegation, unlike the rest of the nation, it didn't really change at all, remaining 5 seats held by Democrats and 4 for the GOP.

But one thing both the nation and Tennessee will now experience is a major round of political recriminations about what happened. On the national level, Republicans will go through another period of redefining itself and rebuilding its badly damaged brand, just like it did after the 1964 elections and again after Watergate in 1974. Senator Alexander could play a major role in that, although as one of the few remaining moderates in his party (and someone who ran more without party label in his re-election campaign), he might have trouble expanding his Senate leadership role if the GOP conservative base seeks to circle the wagons in the party. The internal GOP fight over the past, present and future role of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin will be another interesting thing to watch as the party regroups, especially if she winds up in Washington in the next few years as the new Senator from Alaska.

As for other Tennesseans who might be involved in rebuilding the Republican Party, both former Senator Fred Thompson and former state party chair (and Huckabee campaign manager) Chip Saltsman have been mentioned as candidates to be the new National Republican Party Chairman.  Do they have any real interest or support to get the job? Stay tuned.    

Getting back to Senator Alexander, while he led the ticket in Tennessee, getting more votes and a higher percentage than John McCain, he can't really claim all that much credit for the other GOP successes in the state on November 4. While he may have helped voters stay in the Republican column on Election Day, he didn't campaign for any other candidates or give them money (and he had plenty of funds to spare). Others in the GOP did do that, such as former Senator Bill Frist and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (both looking for political IOUs for a gubernatorial race in 2010?).

And the overall state party leadership outdid itself to recruit good GOP candidates and help them win, with Chairman Robin Smith deserving a lot of credit in this area.

On the Democratic side, some seem to want to blame the man who wasn't there...President-Elect Barack Obama. He never campaigned in Tennessee and ran so poorly in the suburban and rural parts of the state (30 and 40 points behind in some areas) that at least a couple of down-ticket Democrats for the State House and Senate probably got pulled down to defeat by the political dead weight Obama created.

Now that's not completely fair, the decline in Democratic seats in the State House and State Senate has been gradually increasing the last few election cycles. It didn't start with Obama, who thanks to running strong in Memphis and Nashville, managed to lose the state by only about the same percentage (15 points or so) as John Kerry in 2004.

But Obama carried even fewer counties than Kerry, and it's only the huge vote out of the state's two largest cities that makes his numbers look respectable. Really, both Kerry's and Obama's presidential races here were nearly non-existent and it showed badly in the election returns both in 2004 and this year. The same is true for lack of help from the Democratic National Senatorial committee which declined to assist Democrat Bob Tuke in his effort to unseat Senator Alexander. That decision, undermined even the slimmest of chances Tuke had, and left the Democrats with a badly underfunded standard bearer and another crushing defeat in trying to win back a Tennessee U.S. Senate seat, which Democrats haven't held since way back in 1994.

There is also unhappiness with the state party leadership, which will likely turn over come January. Party Chair Gray Sasser has never intended to serve another term, so that makes him a convenient target to criticize for the party's failures in the state. The truth is there's plenty of blame to go around. For the GOP, its victory has many fathers and mothers, for the Democrats, its defeat is just another orphan, leaving the party faithful to wonder how its leaders will get their act together to find a strong candidate for governor in two years and to retake the General Assembly before redistricting starts after the 2010 election.    

If they can't do that, not only will they lose the Governor's Mansion when Bredesen's second term ends, redistricting by the Republicans will make it even harder to re-take the General Assembly or keep the Democratic majority in the state's congressional delegation.


As we mentioned earlier, political reality has been changed forever on Capitol Hill in Nashville. Gone is House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, the longest serving Speaker in history. Unless he can work a miracle coalition with renegade Republicans (very doubtful), he will be turning over his gavel to House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower come January. Nashville GOP representative and former state party chair, Beth Harwell of Nashville thought about making a bid, but decided not to (Mumpower already had the votes?).

That will leave the General Assembly in the legislative leadership situation of having both the House Speaker and Lt. Governor come from the same part of Upper East Tennessee. It has happened before with Speaker Naifeh and former Lt. Governor John Wilder. So I guess you can say the political epicenter of the state has now moved from rural West Tennessee to upper East Tennessee. 

As for the Democrats: Will Naifeh and outgoing Democratic Majority Leader Nashville's Gary Odom get into a fight over who will be Minority Leader of the House? Odom says he is running, Naifeh has yet to commit to anything, except to "staying in leadership."  And how will Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen and Finance Chief Dave Goetz do in trying to figure out a way to work with an all-Republican controlled legislature? They've done pretty well in the past working with the GOP, but now the power equation has changed dramatically. No longer can a Democratic House block the legislation of a GOP State Senate (such as the hot-button pro-life constitutional amendment that has passed the Senate a couple of times, but could never get out of committee in the House).

If the Republicans are united (and that may not always be easy), then they can pass whatever they please, and they can even back it up (again, if they are united) by using their veto override power (in Tennessee, it doesn't take a two-thirds majority to override, only a simple constitutional majority).

In the meantime, holding power in both houses, Republicans, for the first time, can enjoy the powers of patronage, appointing constitutional officers, a new Secretary of State, Treasurer and Comptroller. Already names are surfacing for some of these posts: former Sundquist Deputy Governor Justin Wilson, former Franklin State Senator and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson, and former Congressman and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary among others. What irony that might be for the Bredesen administration as both Hilleary and Bryson are the candidates Bredesen defeated to gain and retain the Governor's seat.

The Republicans also have the power now to control the political apparatus of the state, appointing majorities to the Election Commissions of every county (including strong Democratic counties like Nashville/Davidson County). And they will have a leg up getting ready for the redistricting fights coming after the next census in 2010. Changing the lines can make all the difference in who wins legislative and congressional races, so winning the 2010 elections can help ensure the GOP holds on to power in the General Assembly and take over a majority again of the nine congressional seats from Tennessee.

It's a new day in Tennessee legislative politics. As that car commercial says: "This changes everything."


There continue to be reports that the new Obama administration could have a major impact on Tennessee politics.

Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper's name has been mentioned in THE WASHINGTON POST on a short-list of candidates to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Cooper keeps saying he is not interested in leaving his post, but given his deep concern about reforming this country's out of control spending and runaway deficits, he would be a perfect candidate for President Obama, and Cooper was a strong and early support of the President-Elect.

Cooper's exit would set off a huge rush of potential candidates to run for his congressional seat (and yes, there would have to be two more special elections in 2009, a primary and a general election to fill the position).

  Meanwhile, Governor Bredesen continues to say he is not seeking a cabinet post like Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). But he admits he would talk with the President-elect about joining his administration if he calls. I also heard the Governor make some rather interesting remarks during a recent program at the Capitol. In response to a question, he indicated how much he regrets the bitter fights he got into with the Tennessee Justice Center a few years back over his TennCare cutbacks and other changes. It would be groups like the Justice Center which would most loudly complain about Bredesen getting the HHS cabinet post, pointing out how different Bredsen's approach to health care has been compared to the new President. Were the Governor's remarks an olive branch to try and make up with Justice Center and mute their opposition to a presidential appointment?

Lots of state Democrats would also be very concerned if Governor Bredesen left, since it would open the way for the Republicans to take the seat (in the person of Lt. Governor Ramsey),who would serve as an incumbent for almost two years before the 2010 election. Frankly, some Republicans might not like it either, especially those who want former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to run for Governor. With Ramsey serving as the "incumbent" governor that could complicate Frist's task by having to take on a sitting governor in a party primary rather than seeking an open seat.

Finally, what about Harold Ford, Jr? Will he wind up in D.C. in the Obama administration? Or will he continue to be here in Tennessee assessing his options for a future race for governor in 2010? Or will he try to do both?



In the wake of the November vote, on INSIDE POLITICS this weekend we take a look at the historic nature of the 2008 elections.

That includes the Republican takeover of the General Assembly, which we will talk about with our guest Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.

We also talk with one of our city's leading historians, Dr. Reavis Mitchell of Fisk University, about the election of Barack Obama to be our 44th President and what it says about our country and our future.

You can watch INSIDE POLITICS several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.

7:00 PM, Friday, November 7...........NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast Channel 50

5:00 AM, Saturday, November 8......NEWSCHANNEL5 Plus

 5:30 PM, Saturday, November 8.....NEWSCHANNEL5 Plus

5:00 AM, Sunday, November 9.........WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5

5:00 AM, Sunday, November 9..........NEWSCHANNEL5 Plus

12:30 PM, Sunday, November 9.........NEWSCHANNEL5 Plus

Remember, if you don't have Comcast, or you live outside the Nashville area, you can find excerpts of previous INSIDE POLITICS shows here on the website.


They must have been doing a political happy dance at the Metro Courthouse Tuesday night, when two amendments to the city charter were approved overwhelmingly (and surprisingly) by the voters.

The first change gives the Mayor and the Finance Department more time to put together a budget each year, moving the date to send the budget to the Metro Council from March 25 to May 1. March 25 had been a new date adopted by voters in another charter change two years ago (it had been May 25 for years). But the March 25 date proved to be so early, the budget submitted was pretty much meaningless, and had to be revised several times after the state legislature, among other groups, made their budget decisions for the year, and better tax revenue forecasts became available.

A March 25 deadline would have been particularly difficult for Metro this coming spring, because with a countywide property reappraisal underway, there would be no way to know what the new certified (lower) property tax rate would need to be, or how much it might need to be raised as a part of a property tax increase. That's more important than ever now that tax increases above the current property tax rate have to go to the public for approval in a referendum. Tax increases below the current rate can be approved by the Metro Council alone.

The second charter amendment modifies the strict term limit provisions for the Metro Council. Before the change, even serving one day or a four-year term constitute a full term under the two-term limit. Now council members who serve less than two years of an unexpired term, can serve two more full terms. Because of several vacancies and resignations in the last few years, this applied to five current Council members. It's a good decision as it will help boost the Council's experience level and institutional memory, which have been badly damaged since term limits kicked in back in 1999.

The other part of the term limit change was even more controversial, allowing term-limited district council members to run for At-Large seats and term-limited At-Large members to seek district posts. A court decision in 2007 already approved that idea, but this put specific language in the Charter saying it is OK.

But because previous efforts to revise term limits have failed, and because a number of folks are upset with the way the Council is allowing itself and former members to have life-time health insurance coverage, it was thought both charter amendments would be defeated. Nobody launched a public campaign for or against the measures, and it was thought a lot of people not knowing these matters were even on the ballot would just vote no out of an abundance of caution. But clearly, that's not what happened. Enough voters must have read the proposals and found the language clear enough (another near-miracle) and voted yes by a wide margin.

It proves what many of us "political experts" (including myself) often forget. The voters are much smarter than we sometimes assume. That's a good thing. I just hope they stay that way and vote against the English First amendment coming to the ballot in a special election January 22 of next year. And if it gets on the same ballot, I hope voters also reject that crazy idea of holding an annual special election to consider charter changes. If your government's constitution is so bad you need change it every year, you need a new city charter. We don't. 

NewsChannel 5 thanks Pat Nolan for providing this column every week. Mr. Nolan's commentary reflects his own opinions, not those of the NewsChannel 5 Network.  Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at  

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