Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says there’s a good chance Democrats will be left with just seven seats in the Tennessee state Senate after the Nov. 6 election.
House Speaker Beth Harwell’s most optimistic Republican scenario has the minority party with just 24 representatives remaining.
They and other Republican leaders say there’s virtually no doubt that the GOP will hit a new high-water mark in the 2012 elections by gaining a two-thirds “super majority” in both chambers of the Legislature. There is considerable confidence in Republican ranks that they will go beyond that to what some are calling “a super duper majority.”
Democrats concede the probability of a super majority, which can be achieved by Republicans gaining just two seats each in the House and the Senate, and do not dispute the possibility that things could be a lot worse than that for them.
“We’re going to get outspent $3 or $4 to one. They’re done redistricting so it will help their candidates. And we’ve got a president who is not popular with a lot of people,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “If we can come back with 34 seats, they will have done a terrible job.”
He does, however, think that it’s possible the Democrats could break even, partially because of a “rogues gallery” of Republican candidates this year that could turn off voters, and partially because of a trend toward “people not hating Obama as much as they did two years ago.”
Turner suggested that, in the southern portions of Middle and East Tennessee, voter distaste for Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’s publicized remarks on abortion and a sexual relationship with one of his patients could taint GOP legislative candidates — much as Republicans believe dislike for President Obama is tainting Democratic candidates.
Republicans discount such a scenario. Adam Nickas, executive director of the state GOP, said many voters are “driven to the polls” in a presidential election year by the presidential contest and concern over qualifications of presidential candidates “carries a lot more weight.”
Democrats hold 34 seats in the House now. There are 64 Republicans and one independent, Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, whom Republicans are also hoping to unseat.
Harwell’s prediction last week was that Republicans will gain at least three House seats and perhaps as many as 10.
In 33 of the 99 House seats, there is no Democrat running. In contrast, there are only 15 seats where no Republican in running.
The Tennessee Journal’s analysis of House races characterizes 23 of the remaining seats as “probable Republican,” meaning the district is strongly Republican and/or the Democratic candidate is dramatically underfunded.
In Knox County, the probable Republican list includes incumbent Rep. Steve Hall’s race against Democratic challenger Anthony Hancock in the 18th District.
Another 11 are labeled “leaning Republican.” In East Tennessee, these include Republican Kent Calfee, who defeated incumbent Rep. Julia Hurley of Lenoir City in the GOP primary, as the favorite over Democrat Jack McNew in the 32nd District and incumbent Rep. Kelly Keisling of Byrdstown over Democrat David Harper in the 38th District.
On the flip side, there are only seven contests rated “probable Democratic” by the Journal, none of them in East Tennessee. Just four are rated “leaning Democratic,” including state Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, challenged by Republican Bobby Stewart in the 41st District, which includes Morgan and Fentress counties of East Tennessee.
Thus, Republicans are either unopposed or are at least a presumptive winner in 67 House districts — a figure that matches Harwell’s prediction of a minimum three-seat gain by Republicans.
Democrats are similarly seen as presumed or sure winners in just 26 seats. Independent Williams is rated a “probable” winner in his bid for a new term. That leaves just five seats rated as “toss-ups.”
n The 5th House District, where incumbent Republican Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville is challenged by former Democratic Rep. Eddie Yokley.
n The 13th District, where Republican Gary Loe faces Democrat Gloria Johnson in Knox County.
n The 33rd District, where Republican Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge is in a rematch with former Democratic Rep. Jim Hackworth.
n The 60th District, where Republican Rep. Jim Gotto is challenged by Darren Jernigan.
n The 76th District, where Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden faces a rematch with former Democratic Rep. Mark Maddox.
In the Senate, Republicans now have a 20-13 edge, and 16 seats are up in this year’s election.
Of those 16, there is no Democratic candidate on the ballot in six, and another three are rated “probable Republican” — including Republican Sen. Becky Massey’s bid for a new term against Democrat Evelyn Gill in Knox County.
Only one seat, held by Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, is rated “probable Democratic.”
Of the six remaining seats, three are deemed as “leaning Republican” — all of them held by Democrats in the current lineup.
They are the 10th District, vacated by Democratic Sen. Andy Berke, who is running for mayor of Chattanooga; the 16th District, vacated by Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Winchester, who is running for the U.S. House; and the 28th District, an new seat relocated by redistricting from Shelby County to southern Middle Tennessee. The district number was previously designated for Kyle’s seat.
Three Senate contests are rated “toss-ups” and all are now held by Democrats.
They are the 20th District, vacated by Democratic Sen. Joe Haynes of Nashville; the 22nd District, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Barnes of Clarksville is challenged by Republican Mark Green; and the 24th District, vacated by Democratic Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden.
If Republicans sweep all the “probable Republican” and “toss-up” contests, they would gain six seats, and Democrats would fall from 13 Senate seats to seven — matching Ramsey’s optimistic scenario.
Republicans enjoy an apparently unprecedented financial advantage in the legislative campaigns.
Collectively, Republican Senate candidates had about $1 million more cash on hand in their campaign accounts, for example, and GOP-oriented political action committees had banked far more money in their accounts for distribution in the waning days of the campaigning than Democrat-oriented PACs.
Harwell’s “leadership PAC,” for example, had about $350,000 cash on hand on Oct. 1, and Ramsey’s PAC had $363,000. Pro-Democrat PACs operated by Kyle and Turner, in contrast, had about $14,000 each.
Turner said Republicans have been trying to “suppress” donations to Democrats, urging lobbyists who work with special-interest PACs to donate only to Republicans.
Further, he said some traditional Democratic donors — labor unions being a notable example — have focused their financial attention on helping President Obama and Democratic congressional campaigns, leaving relatively little money for campaigns at the legislative level.
Harwell said last week that she had already donated the maximum amount permitted to Republican legislative candidates facing contests through her own campaign account and plans to now distribute money from her PAC to candidates she feels most need funding.
The speaker said donor preference for Republicans is based on their support for GOP leadership, especially when contrasted to the direction Obama has led at the national level.
“I don’t hate Obama,” she said. “I sharply disagree with his policy positions.”
Asked if she thought DesJarlais’ difficulties could spill over to negatively impact Republican legislative candidates, as Turner suggested, she replied, “I certainly hope not.”
“I respect voters,” she said. “They can distinguish one message from another message.”