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Political climate changing in Wilson County
Nov 14, 2006 12:00 am
Wilson County helped put Tennessee's newest U.S. Senator Bob Corker over the top in a relatively stellar showing for Republicans.
In what was an otherwise bleak year for the GOP, the Republican Corker held on to win by about 3 points over Democratic candidate Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in an open race for retiring U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's seat.
But Wilson County was a different story. Corker pulled 58 percent of the vote here, with Republican state Sen. Mae Beavers commanding 61 percent of the Wilson vote and 58 percent across District 17 against Democratic candidate and former state Senator Bob Rochelle.
Margins were similar on Amendment One, which amended the state constitution to permanently ban recognition of same-sex marriages, with about 81 percent supporting the measure statewide and 82 percent in Wilson County.
Voter turnout was also higher in Wilson County than the statewide average, with slightly more than 62 percent of registered voters in Wilson County putting in a vote. The Associated Press reported Friday that statewide about 56 percent of active registered voters went to the polls either on Tuesday or participated in early voting.
Christian Grose, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said the results are telling of a solid Republican majority that has emerged in the so-called "ring counties" around Nashville. While Wilson County was in the past a Democratic stronghold – with Rochelle holding a state Senate seat here for 20 years – it, too, is following the trend.
"A lot of people who moved to outlying suburban areas, formerly rural areas, seem to be strongly Republican," Grose said. "They're not all from the South, and a lot of people who move to exurban areas have very strong Republican tendencies."
Grose said Ford's decision to campaign with Rochelle could have been a slight factor in the margin here being as wide as it was.
"That might have hurt him in Wilson County," Grose said. "Given the Beavers result, Corker might have done as well because Ford affiliated himself with Rochelle."
Wilson County Republican Party Chair A.J. McCall believes the Beavers re-election campaign contributed to Corker's heavy margin of victory in Wilson County.
"I thought and still think that her being in the race really contributed to Corker's margin of victory because she's very well liked and she's highly trusted," McCall said. "When Corker won, I was a little worried that some of the Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant people may get indifferent to the results and not show up, and I think Mae kept that from happening."
Corker spent heavily in Wilson County and other areas surrounding Nashville, and Rochelle outspent Beavers nearly two-to-one over the course of the 2006 campaign.
But Grose said there comes a point where both sides are spending so much that the advantage becomes watered-down.
"Any time you get that sort of spending for a legislative race it means it's very competitive, and whoever spends the most doesn't necessarily always win," Grose said. "The big gaps in spending only really help when the other candidate is spending almost zero … He might have gotten the exact same result had he only spent $400,000."
However, Grose said, another Democrat may very well have fared better against Beavers than Rochelle, whose history of supporting a state income tax appeared to be a major factor in the race.
And Grose added Ford didn't do an adequate job of tying Corker – a former commissioner of finance for former Gov. Don Sundquist – to the former governor's record of supporting an income tax.
But former Tennessee Democratic Party Chair William Farmer said Rochelle was the best-equipped Democrat to challenge Beavers for the seat.
"The question would be would another Democrat have the power to raise the funds he did," Farmer said. "… It cuts both ways. The one thing that Rochelle had was the ability to raise funds, and when you're a sitting senator you automatically can raise funds, usually."
Farmer didn't believe Ford's appearance with Rochelle impacted Ford's chances, but instead said the massive television campaign and that the now-infamous "Call Me" ad featuring a white woman implying a relationship with Ford made voters tired of the race. The ad was paid for by the Republican National Committee.
"I think the Playboy ad, although people say no, I think it did have an effect," Farmer said. "… And there were other innuendo in there [besides race]. And the fact Republicans didn't taken it down when Corker asked – they knew what they were doing."
In any case, Grose said, the traditional Democratic strategy of buoying losses in heavily-Republican East Tennessee may also require an intense focus on the fast-growing counties surrounding Nashville.
"I think this election reveals one of the reasons [Democratic Gov. Phil] Bredesen did so well in 2002 was people who didn't live in Nashville but saw him on the news saw he was effective and voted for him," Grose said. "… Corker was able to rely on some recent Republican leanings more."
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.