Republicans in driver’s seat after dominating wins

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
November 8, 2010

NASHVILLE — When the Tennessee legislature convened in 1991, Republicans in the House considered boycotting the first day to protest being shut out of committee leadership positions.

Democrats held a 57-42 majority in the House and a 20-13 majority in the Senate. The Republicans decided not to boycott, and then-Speaker Jimmy Naifeh later began appointing Republicans as subcommittee chairmen.

Two decades later, Republicans have won the dominating majority in the legislature that Democrats long enjoyed. After Tuesday’s elections, the Republicans hold a 20-13 majority in the Senate and a 64-34 majority in the House, plus one Republican-leaning independent.

Which begs the questions: What influence can Democrats have on state issues given their new status? And can they ever make a comeback?

Leaders of the two parties in both the House and Senate say it will likely be a slow climb out of the abyss for the Democrats. Republicans are in charge of redrawing legislative district lines next year that will be in place through the 2020 elections. It won’t be pretty for Democrats.

But they say they can still influence legislation and budget issues.

“We will be effective with public policy by presenting issues and positions that the people of Tennessee agree with,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “Republican legislators have been in the minority since I came here (in 1983), but that didn’t prevent them from being effective.

“We probably won’t be asked to participate in certain decision-making meetings. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective advocate for your community and your city. (County Mayor) Mark Luttrell still needs an effective Shelby delegation, and we can provide that.”

The new electoral maps show the challenge for Tennessee Democrats, especially in rural and suburban areas. Of the Democrats’ 34 state House seats, 11 are in Memphis, eight are in Nashville and two each are in Knoxville and Chattanooga — leaving only 11 House Democrats from rural districts scattered across Middle and West Tennessee.

Republicans gained only one state Senate seat. Democrats hold Senate districts in Memphis (four), Nashville (three), Chattanooga (one), Jackson and Northwest Tennessee (two), the Cumberland Plateau (two) and the Clarksville area (one).

Whether the GOP wave subsides in two years is yet to be seen, with Democratic turnout higher in 2012 when President Barack Obama will be up for re-election. But Republicans are sure to challenge all rural Democrats left standing.

Kyle and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville agreed that their party must make inroads with suburban and rural voters.

“Clearly if the Democratic Party is simply going to be an urban party and concede all the suburbs and the rural areas to Republicans, then we’ll be the minority party forever,” said Kyle.

Turner said the party is “not going to write off rural people at all.”

For now, the General Assembly is under new management. Tennessee legislators take office after the election and by Thursday, nameplates of legislators who lost had been stripped from their office doors, their telephone numbers reassigned to the winners and crews were repainting office walls.

Senate GOP Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he wants to see “less game-playing, less partisanship and I hope more open government. We have a mandate here to lead and to govern and that’s what we need to do.”

House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, running for House speaker, said the Republican majority will focus “on ways to grow the economy.”

One early indicator of the new majority’s direction will be over the state’s pre-kindergarten program, started by former Republican governor Don Sundquist and expanded by Gov. Phil Bredesen. Conservatives want to slash it, but Gov.-elect Bill Haslam wants it kept at its current levels.

The House and Senate caucuses of both parties will meet soon to select new officers, including their nominees for House speaker. Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville and a candidate for speaker, told her House colleagues in an e-mail Friday, “My assurance to the Republican Caucus is that all committee chairmanships will be Republican and that each committee will have a Republican majority on them.” Whoever is elected speaker is expected to follow suit.

No boycott by Democrats is planned.

GOP makes big wins in statehouses

The GOP has its largest number of seats in state legislatures across the U.S. since just before the Great Depression, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.

Republicans now hold 3,890, or 53 percent, of the state legislative seats in America, the most since 1928.

The GOP controls at least 54 of the 99 state legislative chambers, its highest number since 1952.

“2010 will go down as a defining political election that will shape the national political landscape for at least the next 10 years,” said NCSL’s Tim Storey. “The GOP finds itself in the best position for both congressional and state legislative line-drawing that it has enjoyed” since the landmark Supreme Court decision Baker vs. Carr in 1962. The case, originating in Tennessee, established the “one-person, one-vote” rule that requires districts to be redrawn every 10 years.

In the South, both legislative chambers in Alabama and North Carolina switched from Democratic to GOP control.

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