As Memphis voters were going to the polls on Election Day last week, attorney Lewis Donelson was talking about the modern day Tennessee Republican Party he was instrumental in forming 60 years ago.
And he was flying the banner of the party’s presidential nominee Mitt Romney about 12 hours before a stunned Romney would concede the race to President Barack Obama.
“He knows what to do about the economy,” Donelson told the Memphis Rotary Club luncheon. “And he knows what to do to get it straightened out again.”
Donelson walked the 100 or so people at Rotary through a quick history of the development of the Republican Party starting in the 1950s when the South was solidly Democrat.
“Tennessee was really the first southern state to become a two-party state,” Donelson said of the hard-fought breakthrough in which a Memphis still dominated by Democratic political boss E.H. Crump figured prominently. “These were died-in-the-wool Republicans and not of the socially conservative. But working-class Republicans.”
Donelson and other “New Guard” Memphis Republicans couldn’t even get the basic permission to hold a Republican primary from the Crump machine – a basic political right.
Donelson talked of a party today in which Howard Baker, the East Tennessee Republican Donelson talked into running for the U.S. Senate and whose mid-1960s victory was an important milestone for the state GOP, probably couldn’t win the party’s nomination.
“I’m the kind of Republican that the tea party doesn’t appreciate very much. My Republicanism isn’t based upon states’ rights.”
“Today he couldn’t get nominated. That’s how much difference there is,” Donelson said.
“I’m the kind of Republican that the tea party doesn’t appreciate very much. My Republicanism isn’t based upon states’ rights. It’s based on balanced budgets and little debt and particularly on less regulation. … The party is much more socially concerned about abortion and same-sex marriage and things like that then it used to be.”
Taking questions from the audience about the impact of social conservatives and tea party activists on the party, Donelson went further on the issue of abortion.
“It’s a woman’s problem and a woman’s right,” he said. “For men to be popping off about what we ought to be doing, it’s totally unnecessary and uncalled for.”
The next day as national political pundits talked of a coming course correction for Republicans, Tennessee not only remained reliably and predictably Republican.
The Republican majorities in the Tennessee Senate and House increased for the third consecutive election cycle.
Republican majorities in each chamber go to two-thirds “super majorities” in January.
Before 10 p.m. on election night Tuesday, Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said voters across the state “spoke with a loud and clear voice tonight.”
“They like what they see from Tennessee Republicans,” Ramsey said in the written statement. “After decades of Democrat Party rule in Tennessee, Republicans have won the war of ideas across this state’s grand divisions and changed the political culture.”
Ramsey touted the super majorities in both chambers as “a culmination of years of hard work and responsible governance.”
Tennessee GOP chairman Chris Devaney ended the week by announcing he will seek a third term as state party chairman.
His Democratic counterpart, Chip Forrester, announced before the election that he would not seek another term as state party chairman.
Forrester emphasized Obama’s national victory in his post-election day message.
He applauded the re-election of Steve Cohen and Jim Cooper to Congress, the state’s two Democratic U.S. representatives.
“The GOP pulled out every dirty trick in its book, outspent our candidates 3-to-1 with misleading and vicious attacks ads, gerrymandered the lines to suit their candidates, mismanaged the election and placed restrictions on who could vote and how,” Forrester added.
Forrester made no mention of the state party’s one realistic chance to improve its numbers net in the state’s nine-member congressional delegation.
Democratic challenger Eric Stewart had a chance at upsetting 4th District Republican incumbent Scott DesJarlais when records from his 2001 divorce showed DesJarlais, a doctor, had sex with a former patient and urged her to have an abortion.
Stewart’s campaign was desperately trying to raise cash statewide to exploit the sex scandal in the closing weeks of the campaign.
But on election night, DesJarlais still beat Stewart by a double-digit percentage.