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« Sign Of The Times: Hostettler To Challenge Bayh | Blog Home Page | NV Sen Poll: Reid's Ads Do Little To Improve Numbers »

Tanner's District May Not Be Bellwether GOP Hoped For

Republicans are touting Democratic Rep. John Tanner's retirement announcement as a troubling sign for Democrats nationally, as well as a home-run pick-up opportunity for the GOP. However, Tennessee's 8th District is hardly a place Republicans should be feeling overconfident, and Democrats there have withstood even stronger national GOP headwinds.

"The moment they put it up on those betting sites as a Republican takeover, I'll certainly start betting," Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster who worked on each of Tanner's election efforts as well for Al Gore, said in an interview with RealClearPolitics.

Those close to Tanner maintain he did not retire out of fear of losing re-election.

"Congressman Tanner thought about not running two years ago -- it has nothing to do with whether he thought he could win re-election," said Hickman. "We did a poll this summer and he was in very good shape."

Hickman notes that Tanner won the district "when Bill Clinton was less popular than Barack Obama is right now," as well as "when Republican candidates like George Bush were really popular." Tanner also won 64 percent in 1994, when the GOP won back Congress, and 70 percent in 2002, another good year for Republicans.

Democrat Harold Ford Jr. won the district in his unsuccessful 2006 Senate race, and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander lost it in his first election to the Senate in 2002. John McCain won 56 percent of the district's vote last year, while Tanner ran unopposed. At the state government level, 14 of the 20 state representatives and senators within the 8th District are Democrats.

"It is a district that is Democratic in the way that Arkansas-1 is with Marion Berry," said Hickman. "It's a rural, agricultural district just like Marion's and is about 20% African American. It's a place that has a history in making the distinction between local Democrats and national Democrats they don't like."

Tanner's exit has brought a flurry of interest from state and local Democrats who see a golden opportunity to head to Congress. However, one reason for the GOP's giddiness is Stephen Fincher, a farmer and member of a gospel singing group who quickly raised $300,000 by the end of the 3rd fundraising quarter.

This provided Republicans with an apparent credible challenger to Tanner, though the congressman had more than $1.3 million in the bank at the end of September. When he was recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee, Fincher was nowhere on state Democrats' radar screens and he has yet to undergo scrutiny from the party or the press.

Democratic State Sen. Roy Herron announced his candidacy less than a day after Tanner's Tuesday night retirement announcement, and three days later remains the only candidate to step forward. Herron, who left the governor's race to run for the seat, has nearly $500,000 dollars in his gubernatorial account, according to Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester.

Forrester told RCP he believes Herron, through a process of returning contributions and asking donors to re-contribute to his federal campaign, will be able to convert at least 90 percent of the money within the next month.

"The fact that he will be able to convert almost a half-million dollars to a congressional bank account...I think certainly puts him as the lead dog at this juncture," said Forrester. "But it is still early."

Other Democratic names currently being circulated in Tennessee include: Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner of Economic and Community Development; state Sen. Doug Jackson; former state Rep. Phillip Pinion; and current state Reps. Craig Fitzhugh and Mark Maddox. State Sen. Lowe Finney, the Democratic Caucus chairman, is opting not to run, Forrester said.

The NRCC quickly moved to paint Herron as someone in line with liberal Democrats in Washington. "Lawyer-politician-professor Roy Herron's 23-year Nashville record is a veritable smorgasbord of Obama-style liberalism," read one statement.

However, as Hickman, who's also doing polling for Herron, says, "Herron is a former preacher -- they can't out-God him," even with a gospel singer.