Sunday column: Alexander, DesJarlais troubles give hope to downtrodden TN Democrats

Hope springs eternal, or at least internal, among Tennessee Democrats longing for a break in the routine of Republican romps through the general election season, and those expectations are on the upswing this Labor Day because of Lamar Alexander and Scott DesJarlais.

The GOP nominees for U.S. senator and the 4th Congressional District are both seen, for different reasons, as vulnerable to credible Democratic opponents. Democratic nominees Gordon Ball, opposing Alexander, and Lenda Sherrell, opposing DesJarlais, are still extreme underdogs. But they do inspire reasonable hope.

Elsewhere on the general election landscape, Democrats are likely to lose two of their remaining seven seats in the 33-member state Senate — thanks to retirement of two Democratic incumbents — and will be hard-pressed to maintain 27 seats in the 99-member House. The party nominee for governor, Charlie Brown, is the subject of GOP “good grief” jokes in opposing Gov. Bill Haslam.

Ah, but Alexander spent more than $6 million during his campaign for the Republican nomination and still found just over half of the state’s GOP electorate (50.36 percent) voting for someone else. That was more than a $6-to-$1 advantage over runner-up Joe Carr, who still had more than 40 percent of the vote, with other primary candidates collectively getting about 10 percent.

So Alexander, 74, seeking his third Senate term after 40 years as a politician, is less than wildly popular among members of his own party.

“The anti-Washington sentiment was stronger than we thought,” Tom Ingram, Alexander’s chief political consultant, told The Associated Press. “A lot of our voters just didn’t turn out.”

Democrats reason that conservative Republicans may also refrain from turning out for Alexander in the general election. The incumbent may not have improved his image among conservatives by announcing a “Democrats for Alexander” effort.

Ball, like Alexander, is a multi-millionaire. And he’s a conservative Democrat — taking abuse from Terry Adams, his leading primary opponent in a close race, for supporting a flat tax and past support of Republicans including Alexander and Haslam. Adams, however, is backing Ball in the general and the state’s remnant population of Democrats at this point seem generally united behind him.

The DesJarlais dynamics are different in that the incumbent congressman has a sordid past of affairs with patients — he’s a physician by profession — and backing abortions in his personal life while opposing them in his political persona. His primary opponent, state Sen. Jim Tracy, pointed this out in fairly genteel fashion while DesJarlais said, more or less, that he’s a changed man since those decade-old indiscretions and is far more anti-Obama and anti-Common Core than Tracy.

DesJarlais won a plurality victory by 38 votes with a majority of Republicans (55.14 percent) voting for someone else, counting others in the race besides Tracy. Thus, DesJarlais is also less than wildly popular with the GOP electorate overall.

The minority Democrats of the 4th District are very united behind Sherrell, a retired CPA and grandmother who has been campaigning actively for months without a primary opponent in an overwhelmingly Republican area.

DesJarlais and Sherrell go into the general election on roughly equal financial footing. Both are obviously counting on outside expenditures to beef up their messaging — in Sherrell’s case, that could mean bashing DesJarlais on his past personal problems.

Both Ball and Sherrell must count on independent voters to swing overwhelmingly to their side — in Ball’s case because the independents are tired of Alexander; in Sherrell’s case because they are disgusted with DesJarlais — while a big chunk of Republican voters sit on their hands for similar reasons.

National political prognosticators uniformly rate both Alexander and DesJarlais as sure winners. And they’re probably right, given that polls show President Barack Obama is widely disliked among Tennessee voters overall and that the Democrats will be linked with Obama and Obamacare in all GOP messaging.

But hope springs internal among Tennessee Democrats and, if things fall into place over the next couple of months as they wish, a couple of Republican incumbents will at least have to worry a bit about blue opposition to their re-election in a red state.

For the state’s forlorn Democrats, that amounts to progress — if not a belief in miracles.