Is Davis an Endangered Species?

Posted July 27, 2005 at 6:07pm

In a political environment in which unseating incumbent House Members becomes more and more difficult with each passing redistricting and fundraising cycle, Tennessee just might be the rule.

The last time Volunteer State voters ousted a sitting Member of the House was in 1974, when two Republicans, Dan Kuykendall and Lamar Baker Jr., lost their seats to Democrats during the post-Watergate revolution.

The last time anyone got close was in 1994 — another watershed year in American politics — when Rep. Bart Gordon (D) held off Republican Steve Gill with a mere 51 percent.

And those facts could put a crimp in the GOP plan’s to try to unseat Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) next year.

Republicans are hoping, though, to rewrite a bit of that history by defeating Davis, who must defend his seat in a district that President Bush won last year by 17 points. The problem is, they don’t have a strong candidate — or any candidate for that matter — just yet.

In 2002, Davis picked up this seat — vacated by then-Rep. Van Hilleary (R), who lost his bid for governor — in an area that had been altered by redistricting in Democrats’ favor.

Bob Davis, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Rep. Davis’ record, including his vote for Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic leader, won’t sit well with 4th district voters, who still tend to be quite conservative.

The GOP’s Davis also brushed aside Tennessee’s incumbent-friendly streak, saying, “I think if you get the right person to run you can beat anybody.”

Although Chairman Davis would not say who he hopes that challenger will be, he was optimistic about finding the right candidate, noting that officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee are more actively committed to the 4th district than they have been in past years.

NRCC spokesman Carl Forti confirmed the national party’s interest.

“I think Mr. Davis is one of the most vulnerable members of the Tennessee caucus,” he said.

Republicans thought they had the right candidate to run against Davis, who was then a state Senator, in Janice Bowling, a former top aide to Hilleary. But Davis beat her by 5 points in 2002 and increased his margin to 11 points in their 2004 rematch.

Chairman Davis argued that Tennessee is trending more Republican, and that Rep. Davis’ GOP opponent will be able to take advantage this time out. In 2004, Republicans won their first elected majority in the state Senate since Reconstruction, and are only four seats shy of taking over the state House. In addition, after narrowly defeating Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000, Bush beat his challenger for a second term, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), by 14 percentage points a year ago.

Noting that these statewide trends have eroded any safety incurred through redistricting, Tennessee Republican Party spokesman Chris Devaney said that “it’s certainly a winnable district.”

But Rep. Davis isn’t concerned about a clash between his constituents’ ideology and his record.

“The candidate who is able to win is the one who is able to run on the issues that people care about,” he said.

Under fire from the right in 2002, Davis told Congressional Quarterly that “[Republicans] are not going to be able to out-gun me, out-preach me, out-pray me.”

“There are few incumbents in the country whose performance and ideological views fit their district better than Lincoln Davis,” said Rep. Davis’ pollster, Alan Secrest of Cooper and Secrest.

“In this instance, there is simply no question,” continued Secrest, “that the 4th district voters believe he shares their values.”

While Davis’ conservative credentials may not come into play, one issue that may be an indicator of how the race is shaping up is fundraising. As of his July 22 Federal Election Commission filing, Davis had raised $47,458, and had only $24,496 in the bank.

“We just haven’t really put in a great deal of effort into fundraising,” Rep. Davis said, adding that despite his numbers, he is not concerned with his fundraising efforts thus far. “We’ve spent a great deal of time working on legislative issues and have spent a great deal of time in the district.”

Rep. Davis’ consultant Bob Doyle of Sutter’s Mill Fundraising, said that “there’s time for everything.” With Rep. Davis’ credentials, “he has the ability to raise north of seven figures, and if that’s what it takes, then that’s what he’ll do.”