Big Stakes in a Little Tennessee House Election (Corrected)

If it's possible for an election that will take place in only one 99th of a state that has only one 49th of the ...
by | October 13, 2009

If it's possible for an election that will take place in only one 99th of a state that has only one 49th of the U.S. population to have national implications, today's race in Tennessee's 62nd House District fits the bill. This little election has big implications for control of the Tennessee House of Representatives and both legislative and congressional redistricting.

The Tennessee House, you might remember, was the home to a legislative coup earlier this year. Tennessee was one of the few states where Republicans made major legislative gains in the 2008 elections. In the House, they moved into a 50-49 advantage. However, Democrats teamed up with a lone renegade Republican, Kent Williams, to take back power. They elected Williams speaker.

Today, Williams and the Democrats' hold on the Tennessee House appears to be in jeopardy. Curt Cobb, a Democratic house member, resigned this summer to take a new job. A win by Republicans in his district would allow them to form a majority without Williams. I haven't seen much commentary on whether the Tennessee House can elect a new speaker before the 2010 elections, but Bill Pascoe of Congressional Quarterly suggests that they can:

Thus, the special election for the 62nd house district, currently controlled by the Democrats, will give Republicans an opportunity to truly control the chamber -- should the Republican candidate win, GOP strength in the lower house would grow to 51 votes, Democratic strength would fall to 48 votes, and a motion to vacate the Speakership could be in order, giving Republicans once again the chance to take control of the body a year before the critical 2010 elections that will elect the Tennessee House that will redistrict the state in 2011.

The redistricting point is also key. With Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen term-limited, Republicans are favored to win the governorship next year. The G.O.P. also has a 19-14 edge in the state Senate. Democrats' best chance to have a role in the redistricting process is by controlling the Tennessee House.

Five of Tennessee's nine U.S. House members are Democrats so, if they gain complete control, Republicans should be able to endanger a Democratic congressman or two. Of course, the 2010 elections will ultimately determine who controls the Tennessee House, but this election represents a first battle in that campaign.

Democrats have a candidate with a famous name and, more importantly, key family ties. Their nominee, Ty Cobb, is the brother of the outgoing representative. He'll face Republican Pat Marsh.

The makeup of the district gives Republicans reason for optimism. This district is in Middle Tennessee, South of Nashville. The rural district's "big" city is Shelbyville, in Bedford County, with around 20,000 people. (Turnip juice subsidies are a top issue, no doubt). The bulk of the voters will come from Bedford County, where John McCain won 66% of the vote.

The district also includes parts of Lincoln County and Rutherford County. The Rutherford County portion of the district looks like the most reliably Republican. In his last two contested elections, Curt Cobb won the Bedford and Lincoln parts of the district, but didn't carry Rutherford County.

As you'd expect in a conservative district, Republicans have been trying to nationalize the race with talk of President Obama, ACORN and illegal immigration. Democrats have knocked Marsh for tax problems and touted Cobb's endorsement by Tennessee Right to Life. Both candidates have raised and spent a lot of money (though Marsh had more on hand for the home stretch) and each has received help from party bigwigs like Bredesen and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.

As a result, voter interest appears to be running high. Already, more than 4,000 people have voted early or absentee -- not bad for a little district in Tennessee.

By the way, there are also two other elections I'm watching today. A C Wharton is favored to be elected mayor of Memphis. CORRECTION: The Memphis election is not until Thursday. Democrats are also trying to hold a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in a special election. The district has a Democratic voter registration edge, but it's located in conservative Western Oklahoma.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

More from Politics