Somewhat surprisingly, to me, Tennessee’s 8th Congressional district features a highly competitive House race in 2010. The reason for the surprise is that the 8th has never really been competitive: John Tanner, the retiring incumbent, never won with less than 62% of the vote (even in 1994, he won 64%.) Part of this was, certainly, that Republicans never gave a serious challenge to Tanner.
This made sense back in the 1980s and 1990s. Jimmy Carter carried the then-7th district in 1980 (Tennessee only had 8 districts in the 1970s), and Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis each won 43% of the vote in the 8th. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton carried the district twice, and Al Gore narrowly carried it in 2000. So, this was basically a Democratic district. (Note to those concerned: the district lines haven’t changed much at all since 1980. The 2000 redistricting subtracted some heavily Republican Memphis suburbs and added part of Clarksville, the net result of which was to change this from a district that Gore won by less than 1,000 votes to one that he won by around 7,000 votes.)
More after the jump…
(NOTE: I don’t have any nice, pretty maps to illustrate this, so follow along. Somebody who’s better at working with this might be able to create one.)
In the 2000s, though, the district has behaved quite differently in Presidential races. In 2004, George W. Bush carried the 8th by around 15,000 votes; in 2008, the Republican margin was even greater: John McCain carried the 8th by about 35,000 votes. That, combined with Tanner’s decision to retire, certainly gives Republicans an opening.
However, despite the Republican surge (part of a general rejection of Barack Obama in a broad swath from West Virginia through Tennessee and into Arkansas), this district still retains a Democratic lean. Let’s look at the numbers:
|2008: Obama (D) vs. McCain (R)
|2006: Ford (D) vs. Corker (R)
|2004: Kerry (D) vs. Bush (R)
See that? While this is a district that has voted Republican in the last two Presidential races, in a competitive Senate race in 2006, it voted for a Democrat. And a Democrat, it must be pointed out, more liberal than our likely nominee in 2010.
The 8th district can be broken down into five rather distinct parts. I’ll break these down further below. The five parts of the district are:
1. Memphis area
2. Rural West Tennessee
4. Tennessee River area
5. Clarksville (portion)
(Another note: Tennessee’s Secretary of State has precinct-by-precinct breakdowns of the vote, but for 2004, absentee and early votes were lumped into “absentee” and “early” by county rather than assigning them to individual precincts. This isn’t an issue in counties that are entirely within the district, but in Shelby County and Montgomery County, which are only partly in the district, we can’t get a completely accurate read of the 2004 vote.)
I was actually surprised to discover that Obama carried the Shelby County portion of the 8th district with nearly 70% of the vote. That’s because, rather than being suburban, most of the 8th district’s Shelby County voters live in a heavily African-American area of north Memphis. And the district’s suburban areas are mostly in Millington, north of the city. Millington, compared to the east Shelby County suburbs (Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville) is more working-class and has a higher African-American population. The result is that it’s generally less Republican than east Shelby County. And the net result is a heavy Democratic vote. In fact, almost all of Harold Ford Jr.’s district-wide margin was in Shelby County.
Tipton County could be classified as rural West Tennessee, but the rapidly-growing southern part of the county certainly is part of the Memphis area, so we’re putting it here. Tipton County is certainly more working-class than east Shelby County (the median household income here is $47,850), but the African-American population is rather low (19 percent) compared to the surrounding counties, and as a result it’s generally Republican.
The Shelby County portion of the district should provide a solid Democratic margin, but the danger for Roy Herron is that, without an African-American candidate at the top of the ticket, A-A turnout in Memphis could be down (something tells me A-A voters aren’t going to turn out in big numbers just to vote for Roy Herron.) So Shelby County should give a solid margin to Herron, but it probably won’t be as big as the margins that Obama and Ford racked up there. But the Shelby County portion of the district casts only 11% of the district vote — not much more than the 9% that Tipton County casts — so it’s unlikely that simply racking up a big margin in Memphis will be enough to put the Democrat over the top.
Republican candidate George Flinn lives in Memphis, though he actually lives in the 9th district.
Rural West Tennessee
Rural West Tennessee tends to be a swing area in state elections. While Obama did poorly in this area, Harold Ford Jr., as seen above, came very close to carrying it in the 2006 Senate race, and Phil Bredesen carried it in the 2002 gubernatorial race — a key to his statewide win. (Kerry lost this area by around 10,000 votes.)
This portion of the district includes Haywood County, which has an African-American plurality (49.7% of the population) and as such is heavily Democratic — it was the one county in Tennessee that Lamar Alexander failed to carry in his 2008 bid for reelection. But generally speaking, this area doesn’t have that many African-Americans — Lake County and Lauderdale County, on the Mississippi River, have A-A populations around 35%, but the rest of the counties have A-A populations more like those seen in neighboring Kentucky.
Despite its recent performance, rural West Tennessee is still Blue Dog Democrat territory — almost all of this area is represented by Democrats in the state legislature. Weakley County is the home of Roy Herron, who’s represented much of this area in the state Senate since 1996 — his district includes Lake, Obion, and Weakley counties, as well as Henry, Stewart, and Benton (which I’ve included in the Tennessee River portion of the district) and three other counties that aren’t in the 8th. As such, Herron can be expected to do well in this area. That’s a good thing, because doing well in the rural counties will be key to a Democratic win — in 2008, this area cast a little more than a third of the districtwide votes. Republican candidate Stephen Fincher is from Crockett County, also in this part of the district.
Jackson (2008 pop.: 63,158) is the largest city wholly in the district. Jackson, basically, is like a smaller version of Memphis, with similar social ills and racially polarized voting. In both national and state elections, it tends to lean Republican; both Harold Ford Jr. and Phil Bredesen (in 2002) lost narrowly here. Unlike the rest of the district (and Tennessee in general), Madison County actually moved toward the Democrats in 2008; Obama lost by 3,000 votes, while John Kerry lost by around 4,800 votes here. Increased African-American turnout seems to be the answer; a precinct-by-precinct breakdown shows that Obama won a bunch of extra votes in mostly A-A precincts in Jackson and didn’t seem to do any better than Kerry did in the white areas of town.
Yet Jackson does seem to have a bit of a Democratic streak. It rejected an incumbent Republican state Senator in 2002, and, after the new Senator switched parties, very narrowly voted for him in 2006 (he lost district-wide thanks to Gibson and Carroll counties.) Herron should win here if George Flinn is the Republican nominee, though he’ll have a tougher time against Jackson-based Ron Kirkland. Madison County casts around 16% of the vote district-wide, so Herron can weather a likely narrow loss in Jackson.
Tennessee River counties
Obama’s performance in this area is a little mystifying to me, as this has always been one of the most Democratic parts of Tennessee. The easy argument is that Obama is black and a liberal — but that doesn’t quite hold water, since this area voted for a black (Ford) and nearly voted for a liberal (Kerry, who lost these counties by 775 votes) in recent years. In any case, though, this area still likes its Tennessee Democrats, as Harold Ford Jr. won here, and Phil Bredesen carried it easily in 2002 (winning over 70% of the vote in Houston County.) Roy Herron likewise should win this area, though perhaps not with the big Democratic margins of old. (Dickson County is actually coming within the exurban orbit of Nashville these days, which explains some of the increased Republican vote there.) This area, as a whole, casts around 20% of the district-wide vote.
The 8th district only includes a small part of Montgomery County. This area does lean a bit Democratic, and Montgomery County moved toward Obama in 2008 — some of that may have had to do with unhappiness with Bush-era foreign policy (Montgomery County includes a large part of Fort Campbell, though it’s not in the district.) In any case, Clarksville doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the 8th district, as it only casts 5% of the district votes. The rest of the city is in the 7th district.
While Democrats will have a tough time holding the 8th, it’s not nearly as uphill battle as it might seem from looking at the 2008 Presidential results. In state elections, much of this district still prefers Blue Dog Democrats like Tanner and Herron, and even a relatively liberal Democrat (for Tennessee, anyway) like Harold Ford Jr. was strong enough to carry this district.
In the 2010 election, Republican-leaning Jackson and the Democratic-leaning Tennessee River counties will likely cancel each other out. Herron should win the Shelby County portion of the district, though without Obama or Ford at the top of the ticket, he can’t count on high African-American turnout. That leaves rural West Tennessee, which gave McCain a big margin but which often votes for Democrats below the Presidential level, and where Herron is well-known and well-liked. I’m not guaranteeing a win by any stretch, but Herron is well-positioned to keep this district in Democratic hands.
In addition, the Republican candidates here have weaknesses. Stephen Fincher and Ron Kirkland have never run for office before, while George Flinn doesn’t live in the district. Against a seasoned, veteran state Senator, they could have trouble.