A long dry spell for Democrats in Tennessee

Robert Houk • Dec 17, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Much fuss was made last week about a Democrat being elected to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.The last time that happend was in 1992, when the Democratic incumbent, Richard Shelby, won re-election. Two years later — a day after the Republican Revolution that ended the political careers of many of Shelby’s Democratic colleagues in the South — he switched parties.

The 1994 midterm elections featured some of the most memorable non-presidential contests this country has seen in decades. Here in Tennessee, the outcome shook the very foundation of state politics.

So, it’s supposed to be news that Alabama residents haven’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 25 years? That’s nothing. Tennesseans haven’t elected a Democrat to represent them in the Senate since 1990. That was when Al Gore Jr. won re-election. He would resign from the Senate two years later to become vice president.

Gov. Ned McWherter appointed another Democrat, his longtime political ally and deputy governor, Harlan Matthews, to serve in the Senate until the next statewide election. Thus the 1994 midterms saw both of Tennessee’s seats in the Senate on the ballot. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser, a Democratic veteran in Washington, D.C., was expecting to become the next majority leader of the Senate.

Instead, his party’s control of the Senate was wiped out, along with Sasser’s bid for re-election. A few years later, it would be Bill Frist — the Republican who beat Sasser in that election — who would become majority leader of the Senate.

It wasn’t exactly a cakewalk to the Senate for Frist in 1994. Before the November general election, Frist had to duke it out with a tenacious political newcomer — a fellow by the name of Bob Corker from Chattanooga — in a crowded Republican primary. Of course, Corker would go on to serve as Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s finance commissioner and later mayor of Chattanooga before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.

The 1994 contest to fill Gore’s unexpired term in the Senate was also one for the books. The Republican candidate, Fred Thompson, spoke gloomily of the dark days generations of Americans would face as result of the growing national debt.

After languishing in the polls for a month or two, his campaign advisors put Thompson in a red pickup truck and sent him across the state. Now re-cast as an affable common man, Thompson had no trouble beating Democratic challenger Jim Cooper, a veteran congressman, who was also busy at the time feuding with the Clinton White House over health care reform.

The remainder of the 1990s saw a steady decline in the Democratic Party’s influence in Tennessee. By the time Gore ran for president in 2000, Tennessee had become even more closely aligned with the GOP in national politics. 

The last Democrat to win a race for a statewide office in Tennessee was former Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2006. Bredesen — who is now vying for his party’s nomination for the Senate — carried all of Tennessee’s 95 counties.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

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