GOP Looks to Climb Rocky Top

Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:57pm

Two months after circulating an unofficial 2010 target list with nary a Tennessee Democrat on it, the National Republican Congressional Committee is suddenly making noise about GOP prospects in the Volunteer State next year.

What changed?

NRCC spokesman Andy Sere this week pointed to successful candidate recruiting and a worsening political environment for Democrats in Tennessee.

Specifically, Republicans are targeting Democratic Reps. John Tanner, Bart Gordon and Lincoln Davis.

“We now have credible candidates, and that is the recipe for putting all these seats into play,— Sere said.

With serious challengers falling into place, Republicans are optimistic that they can take advantage of the three districts’ heavy Republican slants — as most recently evidenced by Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential performance.

While Gordon and Tanner went without a GOP challenger last year, McCain outperformed President Barack Obama by 29 points in Davis’ 4th district, by 25 points in Gordon’s 6th district and by 13 points in Tanner’s 8th district.

“It’s just going to be the kind of year where districts that voted heavily for John McCain over Barack Obama are not going to be real interested to sending a Congressman to help Barack Obama,— predicted Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant and former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party.

In Gordon’s Middle Tennessee district, businesswoman and Rutherford County Republican Party Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik appears to be the reason for all the Republican excitement these days. Though she hasn’t officially filed for the race yet, Zelenik met with NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) this week, and she sure sounds like a candidate.

“It’s time for somebody to stand up for Tennessee,— Zelenik said. Gordon “will come home and he’ll talk about the traditional conservative values of the 6th district, and then he goes to Washington and votes with the liberal left.—

She pointed to Gordon’s support of cap-and-trade legislation and his vote to move a health care reform bill out of committee as two key examples of the Congressman supporting Democratic leaders over his district.

Todd said Gordon, who as chairman of the Science and Technology Committee is technically part of Democratic leadership, will be fighting historical trends along with his own voting record this cycle.

As Gordon has become more loyal to his party — he voted with Democrats 74 percent of the time in the 109th Congress and 90 percent of the time in the 110th Congress — the suburban Nashville counties in his district have become one of the fastest-growing Republican areas in the state.

The GOP has “taken over the state Senate and the state House in the last couple of elections … and the 6th district was the heart of that strategy,— Todd said.

Gordon acknowledged that there has been some recent Republican growth in his district but cautioned against reading too much into the presidential numbers.

Obama never campaigned in Tennessee, Gordon pointed out. Besides that, there was a “cultural issue— that came into play in last year’s presidential election.

Obama “seemed to be too urbane— for 6th district voters, Gordon said. “If you’re from some of those small counties, [Obama was] some guy from Chicago that speaks differently than you.—

Gordon acknowledged that racism was also a factor in Obama’s performance in the district.

“Unfortunately, there was probably a little bit of that, but it was more just being urbane,— Gordon said.

Gordon, who expects to show about $1.3 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, said he’d be happy to take on Zelenik, who he pointed out couldn’t win a state House primary last year. He’s also ready for Republicans to challenge his record in the coming election.

“I hope we can run on [cap-and-trade]. Because that’s jobs and energy independence for Tennessee,— he said.

And though he doesn’t believe the health care bill as it stands now is “ripe yet,— he said voting the bill out of committee was the right decision.

“When most everybody wants to see changes, it would have been irresponsible to have killed health care without allowing it run through the cycle.—

In the western 8th district, which Tanner has held since 1988, Republicans are high on farmer and gospel singer Steve Fincher, who filed this month and has already raised more than $100,000 for his campaign.

“I believe we can do better if we inject Washington with some fresh blood and Tennessee values, and that’s why I’m running for Congress,— Fincher said in his official announcement this week.

On the same day Fincher released that statement, Tanner’s campaign released a poll of 400 likely voters taken in early August that showed Tanner with a 63 percent job approval rating while 24 percent disapproved. That poll, which had a 5-point margin of error, showed Obama with a 43 percent approval/ 54 percent disapproval rating in the district.

“Obviously, [the 8th] is a conservative district and moderate-minded, and that’s why they’ve always been supportive of Congressman Tanner as an independent voice in Congress,— Tanner Communications Director Randy Ford said.

A major reason for Republican excitement in Davis’ district is the fact that the Congressman reported an unimpressive $110,000 in cash on hand as of June 30.

But Republicans also got excited early in the 2008 cycle when health care executive Monty Lankford (R) reported more cash on hand than Davis in March of that year. But by the end of the cycle, Davis had outraised Lankford by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.

Physician Scott DesJarlais (R) is already in the 4th district race, but conservative activist Don Strong (R) also recently filed.