Sunday column: On TN campaign yawning

After spending most of the year fighting among themselves, Tennessee Democratic and Republican party operations now finally are poised to devote post-Labor Day attention to general election contests wherein candidates clash along party lines.

But there are really very few places to focus that attention beyond a national obsession with the presidential campaign. With the exception of a dozen or so races for state House and Senate seats, the outcome of state-level contests is already a foregone conclusion, just as it has been in the last couple of election cycles.

Maybe that’s why Tennessee barely escaped being dead last among the 50 states for voter turnout in 2014, according to a Pew Charitable Trust review of election data. Texas finished lowest with a turnout of 28.34 percent of registered voters. Tennessee’s turnout was just above that at 28.54 percent. Maine finished at the top of the national list with a 59 percent voter turnout.

It’s unclear what overall voter turnout will be in Tennessee’s 2016 elections, probably dependent on voting in the November general election. On March 1, turnout for the presidential primary hit a record high. But it appears that voting in August primaries was the lowest in many years — about half the million voters who showed up for the August 2014 primaries and 200,000 fewer than voted in August 2012.

A probable explanation: There wasn’t as much intra-party competition on the ballot, unlike in 2012 and 2014, when there were at least U.S. Senate nominations to be decided. This year, the intra-party squabbling has focused on things not directly decided by voters — for example, Republicans angry with state GOP Chair Ryan Haynes over a state party staffer’s wife working for challengers to GOP incumbents and the selection of convention delegates, while Democrats had an internal feud that led state Chair Mary Mancini to disband the Shelby County Democratic Party.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will carry Tennessee in the general election. The only thing to be decided is whether it will be by more, or less, than John McCain carried Tennessee in 2008 (56.85 percent) or Mitt Romney in 2012 (59.48 percent). The guess here is that Trump will, gasp, fall short even of McCain and get only about 55 percent.

Congressional races? All the incumbents — and Republican nominee David Kustoff in the 8th Congressional District, who won the only competitive congressional August primary in a seat where Republican incumbent Rep. Stephen Fincher is retiring — are guaranteed victory.

Legislative races? Republicans are absolutely certain to retain their supermajority status in both the House and Senate. There is the curiosity question of whether one party will gain or lose a seat or two, thanks to those rare places where isolated quirks of redistricting mean knee-jerk voting by party affiliation doesn’t predetermine the outcome.

And some of those are darned interesting contests, situations where there are clashes on ideals, issues and philosophy as well as personality; where a thoughtful voter’s decision will make a real difference. But those are novelties and, as such, will attract some attention in the weeks ahead, at least in the affected localities.

By and large, though, this Labor Day marks outset of a yawner in Tennessee general election campaigning, contrasting with decades starting in the late 1960s when Republicans began becoming competitive with Democrats in our state and continuing until Republicans replaced them a few years ago in holding absolute statewide dominance.

Why, in a couple of years, some data-crunchers may find Tennessee had more voter disinterest — or is it contentment with the status quo? — than Texas.

Disclosure note: As a political junkie spectator without partisan predisposition (believe it or not, passionate partisan folks), I nonetheless confess to a general bias in favor of underdogs in both primary and general elections. If they’re sure to win, why pump up their ego with another vote? Thus I have generally voted for assured losers in races where the outcome is certain — excepting cases where the assured loser has come across as a complete jerk — while trying to be a thoughtful voter in those increasingly rare situations where outcome is debatable.