Kerry can't win Tennessee, but can Bush lose it?

A guide to the swing states.
July 2 2004 4:18 PM

Tennessee

Kerry can't win it. But can Bush lose it?

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Herron, who looks quite a bit like John Edwards, is a small-town lawyer and an 18-year veteran of the Tennessee House and Senate. He's a superb retail politician. ("No one loves a parade like Roy," one of his constituents told me.) Before running for the Tennessee House 18 years ago, Herron was a legal aid lawyer and a Methodist minister. He exudes decency—he exclaims "sons of biscuit eaters!" when you or I might refer to a female dog—yet he also wrote a delightful, sometimes salty book of Tennessee political humor. He is an incredibly good soul and wildly popular. When I interviewed folks in his district, Republicans who ranted about Democrats and swore they would never vote for one would interrupt themselves and say things like, "I'm not counting Roy Herron, of course."

Herron doesn't think it's hopeless for Kerry. He acknowledges that Kerry must overcome the handicap of Massachusetts—"not exactly seen as a sister state to Tennessee," he says dryly. But, he notes, "There are at least three things that are different than in 2000. One, over 20 businesses in my district, for example, have had mass layoffs or closed since George W. Bush became president. Two, instead of the underlying anger at President Clinton for his misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, people are upset with the current president over a lot of issues. And three, some of us who hunt and shoot are aware that the Democratic nominee hunts and shoots." The last is particularly critical, Herron emphasizes, because Bush killed Gore on gun issues in Tennessee.

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As we drive around his district in his F-150, Herron points out troubled businesses—the 400-job factory turned into a storage facility—and tells me about the huge tobacco plant that moved to Kentucky, the ornamental-concrete plant that shut down, the other factories that closed. Local unemployment is stuck in double digits, Herron says. In nearby Huntingdon, people on the street complain that the Wal-Mart has killed the town. (I also heard a good Wal-Mart joke.) In this remote, rural part of the state, the economy favors Democrats: The only big projects around are government-funded; the population is getting older, poorer, and smaller.

But if the folks I met in Herron's district are any guide, these issues aren't translating into support for Kerry. Greg Lamb, who lost his job when the concrete factory shut, doesn't blame Bush for the bad economy. He likes the president's Christianity, and he hears that Kerry opposes guns. (When I ask Lamb what he hunts, he jokes, "Liberals.") Karen Gardiner, a secretary at a Dresden Baptist church, downplays local economic problems. What matters are the war—which as a daughter and mother of soldiers, she supports—and moral issues like abortion and gay marriage, which she opposes. In fact, the only people I found in Herron's hometown of Dresden who back Kerry are quintessential yellow-dogs like 90-year-old Annie Blakemore, on her way to get her blood pressure checked. "I don't know much about that other fella [Kerry], but I have always voted Democrat. The president may be doing a bang-up job—I don't know. It doesn't matter. I won't vote for him."

Herron's up for election in November, and so is the local Democratic congressman, John Tanner. Can their popularity, or the endorsement of Tennessee's Democratic governor, generate votes for Kerry? History is not encouraging. In 2000, Herron won 9,266 out of 9,267 votes in Weakley County—all but one vote—yet Gore still lost the county to Bush.

The other bad news for Kerry is that West Tennessee is losing muscle to the middle of the state. The political energy of the state is in Middle Tennessee, particularly the "ring" of suburban counties around Nashville. I drive 15 miles south of Nashville to Williamson County, the ground zero of Tennessee's—and the GOP's—boom. Twenty-five years ago, Williamson County was rural and Democratic. But Nashville white-collar workers moved out there. Country music and health care created a cadre of rich suburbanites. Williamson County's population quadrupled from 34,000 in 1970 to 126,000 in 2000. Now it has topped 140,000. The county adds two schools a year. A massive mall, the Cool Springs Galleria, gushes sales tax revenue, allowing Williamson to repeatedly cut taxes. Real estate dealers fill developments—like "Fountainhead" and "The Manor at Steeplechase"—as fast as they can be built. Country stars such as Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw have moved in. NASCAR stud Darrell Waltrip is in Williamson as well. *

"This is Eden," says county GOP chairman Hugh DuPree with a big grin. "It is not a big city, but it has all the amenities of a big city. There are no slums, no inner city. And we have the best schools in the state." In Williamson, DuPree says, people hate taxes and favor the war. It's the kind of place where you don't make plans for Wednesday evening because that's church night.

The county's new residents—white, prosperous, religious, and economically conservative—are quintessential Republicans. When USA Today was looking to profile the ideal Republican community in 2002, it came to Williamson County.

I spend the morning with DuPree in the county Republican headquarters, a trim little building in the town of Franklin. Every few minutes a new volunteer drops in. Some look like Republicans, blue-haired ladies coming to stuff envelopes and polo-shirted men seeking bumper stickers for their trucks. There is also a long-haired, sandal-wearing college kid home for the summer. Williamson is so conservative that even the hippies are Republicans.

DuPree, an ex-Air Force officer and newspaper publisher, says Bush will destroy Kerry in Williamson. There's not a single Democratic officeholder left in the county, he says gleefully. "It's not a question of whether President Bush will win here, it's by how much," he says. "In 2000, Bush won the state by 80,000 thousand votes. This county—just one of 95 counties—provided a quarter of that margin. He won here by 20,000 votes."

This time, DuPree says, Bush will win this area by even more. The ring counties have now gotten so big and so Republican that they are overcoming the huge Democratic advantage in the city of Nashville.