Parties Differ on Tanner Impact

Posted December 2, 2009 at 6:43pm

Republicans on Wednesday touted Rep. John Tanner’s (D-Tenn.) announcement that he would step down at the end of his 11th term as a sign of a deteriorating political environment for the majority party and a harbinger of more Democratic retirements to come.

But if the GOP hoped that the news was sending shock waves through Democratic ranks in the House, it wasn’t apparent at a midday vote Wednesday, where moderate Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) — two potential GOP targets this cycle — said they hadn’t even heard that Tanner had decided to leave.

Democratic operatives, meanwhile, spent the day painting Tanner’s decision as personal rather than political, made by a man who admitted in his own announcement that he considered leaving Congress in 2007.

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), a close friend of Tanner’s, said he believes that politics had very little to do with why his colleague decided to step down.

“He’s got a grandchild that’s very young and who has had some serious health care problems and he wants to be there,— Berry said. “I don’t think [Tanner’s retirement] has anything to do with the political landscape at the moment, or very little to do with it. He never did pay that much attention to the political side.—

Still, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said Tanner’s decision was not only a blow to Democrats’ chances of holding his west Tennessee 8th district seat next year, but a symbolic blow as well.

“A well-funded member of the original Blue Dog Coalition is stepping aside because he sees the writing on the wall,— Spain said. “Right now there a number of longtime Democrat incumbents who are quietly pondering whether to throw in the towel or face a staggering political headwind next fall.—

Tanner is the second Blue Dog to announce his retirement in two weeks, following six-term Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.). Both men sit in competitive districts that the NRCC has made plenty of noise about targeting next year.

Among those who will be watched even more closely now that Tanner has decided to leave are 13-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), who has yet to officially announce his re-election plans, and a slew of fellow Blue Dogs who, like Tanner, sit in seats that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) won in the 2008 presidential race.

Among that group is Tanner’s Tennessee colleague, Rep. Bart Gordon (D), who is also a top target of the NRCC, and Berry.

A spokesman for Gordon said Wednesday that his boss fully intends to seek re-election.

“When petitions [to get on the ballot] are available on Jan. 4, we’ll have them in hand,— Gordon communications director Kinsey Kiriakos said.

“Who knows what tomorrow brings,— Berry said, but “at this time [running for re-election is] my plan.—

Berry added that Tanner’s decision “is certainly not the beginning of a flood. I don’t think that at all. Blue Dogs, we kind of like a good fight.—

Arkansas Rep. Vic Snyder (D), who is not a Blue Dog but is a moderate who is being targeted by Republicans, said Tanner’s retirement is not the canary in the coal mine.

“I do not think there’s going to be a flood of Democratic retirements and, I don’t plan to retire,— said Snyder, who represents a district that McCain won by 10 points last year.

A Democratic leadership aide acknowledged there may be more retirements to come this cycle but cautioned that “there won’t be surprises this cycle the way there was in 1994.—

In that historic election, 22 of Democrats’ 52 net losses were in open seats.

Tanner’s retirement now gives Republicans a juicy opportunity in a district that they had rarely targeted during the Congressman’s 11 terms.

The mostly conservative 8th district gave McCain 56 percent of the vote last cycle even as Tanner went unchallenged. In 2004, President George W. Bush won the district with 53 percent. But Democrats prefer to point to the 2006 Senate election in Tennessee, when then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) carried the district with 52 percent. In addition, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen won the 8th district with 55 percent of the vote in 2002 and 73 percent in 2006.

In September, Republicans recruited little-known farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher for the race, and he came out of nowhere to report $303,000 in fundraising receipts as of Sept. 30. All that money was from individuals.

After his unexpected fundraising showing, the NRCC has touted Fincher as a candidate with strong grass-roots support in western Tennessee and recently added Fincher to its “Young Guns— program for promising recruits.

Asked Wednesday if the committee might cast its recruiting net for a more well-known candidate in light of Tanner’s retirement, NRCC southern regional spokesman Andy Sere said, “Of course not. [Fincher’s] running one of the best campaigns in America.—

It’s too early to say who will emerge as the Democratic nominee, but veteran state Sen. Roy Herron (D), who has long been allied with Tanner, got into fray early when he dropped his 2010 bid for governor and jumped into the 8th district race just hours after Tanner’s retirement announcement.

Herron, who hails from Dresden, Tenn., has spent 23 years in the Legislature and represents a large geographic swath of the 8th district. He’s viewed as someone who can raise large sums of cash for a Congressional bid, as evidenced by his performance in the gubernatorial primary. He raised more than $650,000 for his gubernatorial bid in the first six months of 2009 and was expected to be leading the primary field during the next round of financial reports at the end of the year.

In what might be an indication that they believe he’ll be the Democratic nominee, Republicans were quick to hit Herron on Wednesday.

“Lawyer-politician-professor Roy Herron’s 23-year Nashville record is a veritable smorgasbord of Obama-style liberalism,— Sere said. “With his gubernatorial bid circling the drain, he’s embarked on a quixotic quest to take his job-killing agenda national.—

But Randy Button, a former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday that Herron is right on the issues.

“Roy is pretty level-headed on his approach to legislating,— Button said. “Issues like guns and religion, Republicans are not going to be able to out-position him on the right.—

If he can make a persuasive case that he is in the same old-school Southern Democrat mold as Tanner, Herron could have a good shot at the nomination. But he may not have the primary field to himself. Other Democratic names being mentioned as Congressional candidates are state Reps. Judy Barker and Mark Maddox, former state Rep. Phillip Pinion and state Sen. Lowe Finney.

But it appears likely that Tanner will get involved in the primary if it looks like the contest will hurt Democrats’ chances for holding the seat.

“The Congressman’s focus is ensuring that there’s not a divisive primary that would make things difficult in the district,— Tanner spokesman Randy Ford said. —He’s waiting to see who all comes out for the race and will get involved at the appropriate time.—

Meanwhile, in a statement Wednesday, Fincher appeared ready to tie any Democratic opponent to the national party leadership.

“Everything has changed, and nothing has changed,— Fincher said. “One candidate will go to Washington to fight the Obama-Pelosi agenda, and the other will go to embrace and support it. That’s the fundamental difference in this race, regardless of who the Democrats nominate.—

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.