Obama faces uphill climb winning Tennessee in November

Hank Hayes • Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Recent history suggests that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama — who will campaign in Bristol, Va., today — will need more than Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s coattails or state Democratic Party unity to win Tennessee this year.

“I think (GOP presidential nominee) John McCain will have longer coattails in Tennessee than either Bredesen or Obama,” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, predicted.

Democrats didn’t fare well in the last two presidential general election contests in Tennessee, and the last election in the state was far from going Obama’s way.

The Tennessee Republican Party (TRP) points out that Bredesen and Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Gray Sasser — superdelegates who declared their support for Obama on Wednesday — are now on the side of a candidate who lost 86 of Tennessee’s 95 counties to Hillary Clinton in the Feb. 5 Democratic presidential primary.

“They have endorsed a candidate who knows the price of arugula at Whole Foods Market but criticizes rural Americans for ‘clinging’ to God and their Second Amendment rights,” Bill Hobbs, TRP’s communications director, said in an e-mail.

But McCain wasn’t the first choice of Tennessee Republicans or a number of the state’s GOP leaders. For instance, Ramsey initially backed former Tennessee U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. Tennessee House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, a Ramsey ally, supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

McCain came in second in the Tennessee GOP primary behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who actively campaigned in GOP-leaning Northeast Tennessee.

Former Tennessee state Sen. Jim Holcomb, a Bristol Republican, said Huckabee’s supporters are more likely to back McCain than Obama.

“I think it’s wonderful that Obama is coming to Southwest Virginia,” Holcomb said. “It’s the bastion of conservatism for Virginia. That says a lot for him and his sense of need to reach a broader base of the voting public.”

In Northeast Tennessee, Democrats have been outnumbered by Republicans in state and national election contests.

In 2000, Tennessee native son and former Vice President Al Gore got less than 40 percent of the vote in many of Northeast Tennessee’s counties when he lost Tennessee to Republican George W. Bush.

During Bredesen’s first term in office, Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry lost Tennessee by more than 350,000 votes in 2004 to Bush.

Bredesen has had mixed results actively campaigning for Democrats in Tri-Cities legislative races, although he took all of Tennessee’s 95 counties during his 2006 re-election win.

The governor endorsed Ramsey’s 2004 Democratic challenger in the 2nd Senatorial District, Sullivan County Commissioner John McKamey, who lost by more than 20,000 votes.

Bredesen also campaigned for former state cabinet member and ex-Washington County, Tenn., Sheriff Fred Phillips, who lost a contentious race against GOP incumbent state Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough in the 7th House District in 2006.

But, in 2004, Bredesen campaigned and raised money for Democratic state Rep. Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport. Vaughn defeated GOP challenger Neal Kerney in Sullivan County’s 2nd House District by nearly 4,000 votes.

Vaughn, an African-American who attracts swing voters, often describes himself as a lawmaker who works for all the people in his district, not just Republicans and Democrats.

“Senator Obama draws an even larger picture of America,” Sasser said in an e-mail. “He paints a picture of an America where we no longer define ourselves by our divisions, but define ourselves by what unites us. And what unites us as Democrats, Republicans and Independents, what unites us as Tennesseans, is the belief that this country can do better.”

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