Passage of the qualifying deadline for legislative candidates last week leaves Republicans well-positioned to achieving their goal of making Democrats politically irrelevant in the 108th General Assembly that convenes next year.
In part, that’s because 11 incumbent Democrats — seven representatives and four senators — are voluntarily not seeking re-election.
At least four more incumbent Democrats — three representatives and one senator — are certain to be ousted later because of Republican-controlled redistricting leaves incumbents running against one another in the same district.
In part, the GOP advantage also rests with money. Financial disclosures filed earlier this year showed Republicans holding an advantage of more than $3 to $1 in cash on hand for spending on legislative races — about $3.2 million for Republicans versus $770,000 for Democrats.
The uphill road faced by Democrats in just maintaining their status quo as a sometimes influential minority becomes apparent through an analysis of the candidate lineup for this year’s campaigns after the qualifying deadline passed on Thursday.
Basically, it shows Republicans already are certain to have a majority again next year in both chambers and have a head start toward further eroding Democrats’ waning strength. Republicans need to gain just two seats in the House and two seats in the Senate to have a two-thirds majority in both chambers, a standard that means that all Democrats could boycott a session and the GOP would still have a quorum to continue legislating.
A two-thirds majority would also mean unified Republicans can suspend normal procedural rules to take up any legislation and push it through almost instantly.
As things stand today, Republicans have 64 seats in the 99-member House with 66 needed for the two-thirds goal. Democrats have 34 seats and one independent, Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, usually — but not always — votes with the GOP.
In the Senate, the Republicans hold 20 seats in the 107th General Assembly; Democrats 13. Twenty-two seats are needed for the two-thirds majority.
An unofficial list of candidates qualifying for legislative races this year by the state Division of Elections, which could be changed by candidate withdrawals in the coming week, shows:
In the House, no Democrat is running for 34 of the 99 seats up for election and thus will be won by Republicans. These include seats previously held by Democrats in Hamilton and Shelby counties that were recreated as GOP strongholds by redistricting.
For example, Democratic Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnn Favors of Chattanooga were placed in the same new district. The newly created neighboring District 29 had only one candidate to qualify, Republican Mike Carter of Ooltewah, who is now assured of election.
Conversely, only 15 seats have no Republican candidate and thus are assured of being held by Democrats regardless of how the voting goes.
Of the remaining contested seats, 32 are currently held by Republicans and 18 by Democrats. But at least half of the 32 Republican-held seats, or 16, are virtually impossible for Democrats to win, thanks to redistricting and/or voting tradition. Only six of the Democrat-held seats are virtually invulnerable to Republican wins.
Thus, Republicans are effectively assured of 50 House seats, enough for a simple majority. Democrats are assured of just 21 seats before the voting begins.
In the Senate, 16 of the 33 seats are up for election this year. Of the 17 seats where the incumbent has another two years on his or her term, 11 are held by Republicans and six by Democrats.
In six of the seats that are up, there is no Democratic candidate. Combined with the 11 sitting Republicans who are not up this year, the Republicans are thus assured of 17 seats in the 108th General Assembly, enough for a simple majority, before any voting.
Further, three of the seats where Republican senators have a Democratic challenger are in districts heavily tilted toward the GOP — one example being the Senate District 6 seat now held by Republican Sen. Becky Massey of Knoxville.
The GOP, as a practical matter, is virtually certain to have at least 20 Senate seats in the 108th General Assembly, the same as now.
Democrats, on the other hand, have a lock on just six seats — those held by sitting Democrats who are not up for election this year. In all 10 seats where there is a Democrat on the ballot this year, there is also a Republican option.
In seven seats held by Democrats, Republicans have competitive candidates. In four of those cases, incumbent Democrats have decided not to seek re-election — the seats held by Sens. Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Eric Stewart of Belvidere, Joe Haynes of Nashville and Roy Herron of Dresden. Stewart is running for Congress.
Retiring Democratic House members are Reps. Eddie Bass of Pulaski, Bill Harmon of Dunlap, Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, Mike McDonald of Portland, Gary Moore of Nashville, Janis Sontany of Nashville and Harry Tindell of Knoxville.
Five Republicans are retiring from their current seats — Sen. Mike Faulk of Church Hill along with Reps. Scottie Campbell of Mountain City, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, Philip Johnson of Pegram and Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains. Hensley and Niceley are running for Senate seats — Niceley the one vacated by Faulk and Hensley in a southern Middle Tennessee seat created by redistricting.
While a total of 16 legislators are giving up the seats they now hold, 10 former legislators are trying to return to the General Assembly.
Three of them are House Democrats unseated in the 2010 Republican sweep: Former Rep. Jim Hackworth of Clinton, who is running against Republican Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge; former Rep. Mark Maddox of Dresden, facing Republican Rep. Andy Holt, also of Dresden; and former Rep. Eddie Yokley of Greeneville, running in the seat now held by Republican Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville.
Another House Democrat defeated in a bid for re-election last year, former Rep. Ty Cobb of Columbia, is unopposed for his party’s nomination to the new open Senate seat in Middle Tennessee.
Note: This also appears in the News Sentinel, HERE.