On Political Dogs and the Demise of Independent TN Voters

The November election shows that the once-dominant Tennessee political species known as the “yellow dog Democrat” is not extinct, though confined to isolated areas, while the now-dominant species — let’s call it “yellow cat Republican,” though the phrase is not christened by tradition — is thriving in much broader geographic regions.
Exhibit No. 1 on the Yellow Dog Democrat (YDD) survival front: Mark Clayton, widely condemned and officially disavowed by the remnant state Democratic establishment for “extremist views” contrary to Democratic values. He nonetheless collected more than 30 percent of the vote statewide against Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. He got 704,708 votes and, if you counted only the votes in the Democrat-dominated habitats of Davidson and Shelby counties, would have defeated Corker.
That was roughly equal to the percentage performance of Democrat John Jay Hooker against incumbent Republican Don Sundquist in the 1998 gubernatorial election.
The state Democratic Party had urged the faithful to write in a candidate rather than vote for Clayton. Almost none did so. After the election, Clayton actually declared victory “in the race against the unelected bosses who waged a write-in campaign (against) their own duly nominated leader (Clayton) with unauthorized party resources.”
In short, the YDD faithful ignored the party advice and backed Clayton.
Exhibit No. 1 on the Yellow Cat Republican (YCR) front: U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais was re-elected with almost 56 percent of the vote in the GOP-dominated habitat called the 4th Congressional District, despite the disclosure that he had been a total hypocrite in his private life as compared to his political and public life declaration of opposing abortion. And that, as a physician, he had sex with patients other than his wife at the time. You might say that, in his personal life, he had exhibited extremist views contrary to Republican values.

DesJarlais’ response was, basically, “So what? My opponent is a Democrat and I’m not.” That was good enough — just as, in the remaining Democratic enclaves, the YDD voters chose the party label over public party disavowal.
There was no pre-election disavowal of DesJarlais by Republican Party powers — instead, just silence and dodging of the questions. The difference, of course, is that Republicans feared that acknowledging DesJarlais as unfaithful to GOP family-values principles could conceivably have had an impact on the partisan election, even in a district designed to be controlled by YCRs. Democrats knew that bashing their nominee, Clayton, would have no impact on the outcome of the general election since Corker was assured of winning anyway.
As it turned out, the Republican fears were unwarranted — or, some suggest, a cold calculation that DesJarlais could be tolerated until a GOP challenger can unseat him in 2014. But it probably didn’t matter. A Republican disavowal of DesJarlais would doubtless have been about as effective as the Democratic disavowal of Clayton to the YCRs.
An Exhibit 2 on the YCR front could be the victory of Republican state Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville over former Democratic Rep. Eddie Yokley, despite Hawk’s facing charges of domestic violence. Back in the old days of 2002, Yokley defeated a Republican, Ronnie Davis, who was facing criminal charges at the time, by almost 2-to-1.
Times have changed, it seems.
Already, it’s pretty much established that one old political truism — that all politics is local — is no longer valid in our fair state. Today, it’s more accurate to say that all politics is national. The GOP, for example, focused its efforts in races for the state Legislature on likening all Democrats to President Barack Obama. And that has worked as yellow cat Republicans rule most areas.
Maybe another old truism is dead as well — that independent voters decide statewide general elections in Tennessee. That was accurate in the state’s transitional period (roughly from 1970 or so through 2006) from yellow dog Democrat domination to yellow cat Republican domination.
Today, the real endangered political species in our state seems to be independent-minded voters. Nothing matters but the party label.

Note: This was written as a Sunday column for the News Sentinel and also appears HERE.

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