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Tennessee at a glance

This battleground state draws its political divisions from the Civil War; and many counties still vote according to their loyalties in that conflict, which occurred than a century ago.
/ Source: National Journal

Tennessee is a battleground state, with a fighting temperament since it was settled 200 years ago by the likes of Andrew Jackson and went on to produce so many soldiers it came to be known as the Volunteer State. This was a frontier battleground in the 1790s, from which Jackson launched his wars on the Indians and the British. It was a military battleground in the 1860s, when Yankee troops swept down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on their way to Mississippi and through Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain on their way to Atlanta and the sea. But a battleground with a certain civility: both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on the widow of President James K. Polk, who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Tennessee has been a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a manifesto calling for retaining the South’s rural economy and heritage. On the other side have been business leaders and politicians who have made Tennessee the fastest-growing state of the interior South: Tennessee has given birth to the first supermarket (a Piggly Wiggly), the Holiday Inn, FedEx and Goo-Goo Clusters.

This state has also been a marshaling ground for the music traditions that have a large place in Americans’ lives. East Tennessee is one of the homes of bluegrass music and mountain fiddling, with string bands and vocal harmony; Knoxville’s Tennessee Barn Dance has been broadcast since 1942. Gospel music has long been centered in Nashville, which is also the nation’s leading center of religious publishing, the headquarters of Thomas Nelson, FaithWorks, Integrity Books and LifeWay’s Broadman & Holman. Country music got its commercial start in Nashville, with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium starting in 1925; Nashville remains indisputably the capital of country music. The Mississippi lowlands around Memphis, economically and culturally the metropolis of the Mississippi Delta, gave birth to the blues in the years from the 1890s to 1920; and the blues were in turn the inspiration for the jazz musicians of Beale Street in the 1920s and Elvis Presley, whose Graceland mansion is now a major tourist destination, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tennessee is and has long been a political battleground. Its political divisions have their roots in the Civil War, and many counties today still vote their 1860s loyalties: The Union counties, mainly in the east but also a scattering to the west, vote solidly Republican, while the Confederate counties in middle and west Tennessee long voted heavily Democratic. There are long distances between these regions in this elongated state: Johnson City in East Tennessee is closer to Dover, Delaware, than to Memphis, and Memphis is closer to Dallas, Texas, than to Johnson City. Within the limits of these enduring party loyalties, political entrepreneurs have set the tone for the state. From the 1920s to 1948, Edward Crump, longtime mayor of Memphis, used his total control of Democratic primary votes there to elect governors and senators. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the cheap electric power it generated provided an institutional base for reform liberal Democrats Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr., elected to the Senate in 1948 and 1952. They were soon national figures, with reliable enough backing from Tennessee’s yellow-dog Democratic majority to vote for civil rights bills and to refuse to sign the segregationist Southern Manifesto. Kefauver died in 1963 and Gore was defeated in 1970, but lived on to see his son twice elected vice president before his death in December 1998. Tennessee has never had a large black population—16% today, half of whom live in and around Memphis—and the state was not riven by the racial animosity that seared so much of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks in large part to the actions of its leading politicians, but also to the continuing hold of ancestral partisan preferences.

Today the political balance has changed, and Tennessee has become a mostly Republican state. Democrats’ cultural liberalism has moved rural voters in west and middle Tennessee away from their ancestral loyalties, and the surging growth in the ring of counties around Nashville in the 1990s has created a new voting bloc that is conservative on both economic and cultural issues. The first movement toward the Republicans occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, symbolized by the elections of Republican Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock in 1966 and 1970, and Republican Governor Lamar Alexander in 1978. Then, as Jimmy Carter changed the image of the Democratic Party, Democrats rallied; Democrats Jim Sasser and Al Gore were elected to the Senate in 1976 and 1984, and Democrat Ned Ray McWherter was elected governor in 1986. This movement was still strong enough for the Clinton-Gore ticket to carry Tennessee 47%-42% in 1992. But the narrowness of the margin was a warning of what was ahead. In 1994 Tennessee turned against the Clinton administration and produced a kind of political revolution. Republican Fred Thompson, famous as a Watergate investigator and movie actor, won the remainder of Gore’s Senate term by a landslide, and heart transplant surgeon Bill Frist beat Sasser; Republican Don Sundquist was elected governor. Republicans won a majority of the vote for the U.S. House, gaining two seats and coming close in a third. The Republican trend was strong enough in 1996 that only after extraordinary efforts—Gore made 16 appearances here and the campaign pumped in money for late ads—was the Clinton-Gore ticket able to win by a narrow 48%-46% margin.

In 2000 the tide was even stronger. George W. Bush targeted the state early and worked it energetically; the Gore campaign, though headquartered in Nashville, seemed to assume it would come around in the end, and only campaigned hard here in the last few days. Bush carried the state 51%-47% and Gore became only the fourth major party nominee to lose his home state in 85 years (the others were South Dakota’s George McGovern in 1972, Kansas’s Alf Landon in 1936 and New Jersey’s Woodrow Wilson in 1916). In his gracious concession speech, Gore noted that he had some fence-mending to do in Tennessee, but the problem was not that he was personally unpopular; the problem was that the issue positions and cultural tone of the Clinton-Gore administration was alien and grating in rural Tennessee and in the suburban subdivisions expanding from Nashville and other cities out into the countryside. The 2002 election saw some movement back to Tennessee Democrats: Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen won the governorship by 51%-48%: Tennessee has now alternated the parties in the governor’s office at eight-year intervals for a quarter-century. Democrats, aided by partisan redistricting, also picked up one congressional district and maintained control of the legislature. But Republican Lamar Alexander, 20 years after he won his second election as governor, was elected to the U.S. Senate by a 54%-44% margin. In 2004 Bush carried Tennessee by a solid 57%-43% margin and Republicans won the popular vote for the House and, for the first time since Reconstruction, elected a majority of state senators. In 2006 Bredesen, after spending political capital trimming the TennCare health insurance program, was reelected 69%-30%, carrying all 95 counties. But Republican Bob Corker, after winning a bitter primary, was able to beat Democratic Congressman Harold Ford 51%-48%—the one Republican victory in closely fought 2006 Senate contests. This, despite an effective and attractive campaign by Ford, who carried his fellow blacks 95%-4%; Corker carried white evangelicals (a majority of voters) 58%-41%. Ford ran especially strong in the state’s urban cores, Memphis’s Shelby County and Nashville’s Davidson County. But Corker managed to carry some historically Democratic counties in Middle and West Tennessee, and got between 53% and 67% in the ring of six counties around Davidson County and 58% in the two suburban counties adjoining Shelby County.

This is a Tennessee that is expanding economically but is not abandoning its cultural roots. If its economy lagged behind the nation’s through much of the 20th century, its respect for hard work and its open climate for entrepreneurism have enabled it to grow mightily in its last decades and in the first years of the 21st. The expansion started in the early 1980s, when Alexander helped bring big auto plants to middle Tennessee. The lack of strong unions and of bitter racial divisions—Tennessee was mostly untouched by the racial strife of the 1930s and the civil rights strife of the 1960s—attracted Japanese companies here, which in turn attracted General Motors’s Saturn division. In the past few years, as the Big Three auto companies’ problems sank Michigan’s economy, Tennessee’s mostly Japanese auto companies have maintained a vital and growing auto parts industry; there are an estimated 125,000 auto-related jobs in the state. In 2006 Nissan moved its American headquarters from the Los Angeles suburbs to Nashville. Some of Tennessee’s old industries have fallen behind: apparel and textile factories have closed, and the tobacco harvest in 2006, after the federal tobacco buyout, was down 72% from its peak in 1982. But country music has boomed, and Nashville has become a major health care center. Unemployment has been low, and Tennessee’s population increased 19% between 1990 and 2006. Growth has been particularly robust in the ring of counties around Nashville, which have been attracting significant Hispanic immigration.

Despite or because of all that growth, Tennessee state politics has become, well, a battleground. Tennessee has been growing more than neighboring in part because of its low taxes. It has no income tax (the state Supreme Court ruled in 1931 that the state Constitution didn’t list the income tax as one the legislature could impose, and so it couldn’t) and it ranks low on the list of state and local taxes as a percentage of per capita income. But in 1994 Governor Ned Ray McWherter created TennCare, an extension of Medicaid, and TennCare spending accelerated far above projections from $2.5 billion in 1995 to $8 billion in 2004. Republican Governor Don Sundquist, elected on a no-income-tax platform, nonetheless pressed unsuccessfully for an income tax. Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, also elected on a no-income-tax platform, kept his promise and scaled TennCare back significantly in 2005. In 2006 he was resoundingly reelected; Democrats got a party-switcher’s seat back in the state Senate, but one Democrat voted with Republicans to oust Senate leader (and under Tennessee rules, Lieutenant Governor) John Wilder, who at 85 had held that position, sometimes with Republican votes, since 1971—the longest-serving legislative leader in the nation.