Baker’s Career Mirrored State’s Political Story

By Bill Dries


As the week begins, political leaders of both parties and across several generations will gather in East Tennessee for the funeral of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker.

Baker, who died Thursday, June 26, at the age of 88, will lie in state Monday at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with funeral services Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Tenn.

Baker’s political chronology is the story of the rise of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee from his political base in East Tennessee as well as the Republican base in Shelby County. And in some ways, it marks the changes in that legacy – as Republicans now hold the office of governor, both U.S. Senate seats, seven of the state’s nine Congressional seats and supermajorities in the Tennessee House and Senate.

Baker’s last campaign appearance in Memphis was in the 2010 Republican primary campaign for governor when he backed Bill Haslam, who went on to win the primary and the general election.

Baker was the Republican establishment in Tennessee. He lived long enough to see a gap within the party between who that establishment backed and who won the state’s presidential primary after Tennessee went red – or Republican – in the 2000 presidential general election.

By 2013, his law partner Lewis Donelson, who was also part of the group that built the modern statewide Republican Party, said Baker probably couldn’t win a Republican primary for the Senate today.

“Today he couldn’t get nominated. That’s how much difference there is,” Donelson told the Memphis Rotary Club in November 2012.

“Howard Baker literally built the two-party political system in Tennessee over the last half-century,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week.

It’s something Alexander has said frequently over his own long tenure in the political spotlight.

These days, Democrats in Tennessee talk with the same kind of fervor about restoring a two-party system to the state in the face of Republican dominance as they campaign in Memphis and Nashville, where there is still a sizeable Democratic base.

Stories about Baker appear frequently in Donelson’s 2012 autobiography, “Lewie.” The two worked together for the Memphis-based law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, where Baker most recently served as senior counsel.

Donelson managed Baker’s last Senate re-election run in 1978 and insisted that Baker campaign in several Memphis shopping centers. After Baker’s staff said he never did that, Donelson prevailed and Baker proved more than able.

“He did not like campaigning,” Donelson wrote. “But he did it superbly and skillfully. His comments were thoughtful, seasoned and calm, and his rationale sound.”

At the Alcoa, Tenn., airport where Alexander spoke last week of Baker, he remembered being at the airport 48 years earlier as a volunteer in Baker’s 1966 Senate campaign, describing himself as “wet behind the ears and just out of law school.”

“He boldly announced that he would win by 100,000 votes a week before the election, and I was embarrassed because it was such an outlandish prediction,” Alexander recalled, adding that was Baker’s margin of victory.

At the outset in 1966, Baker committed to no more than three terms in the Senate, and 18 years later, he remained committed.

Baker and the others who wrestled the state GOP from Memphis political leader Lt. George W. Lee in the early 1960s were moderates at a time when the national party was nominating Richard Nixon over Nelson Rockefeller and when Ronald Reagan was still a Democrat about to become a Republican.

The son of a congressman, Baker was the first Republican from Tennessee popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. His election was a bellwether for the rise of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee, and it relied on uniting Republican bases in Memphis and East Tennessee that separately were too small to have any impact on elections.

The strategy also relied on attracting independent voters.

The next major victory was in 1970 when Winfield Dunn, a Memphis dentist, was elected the state’s first Republican governor in 50 years.

Dunn, in his 2007 autobiography “From A Standing Start,” called Baker’s 1966 victory “pivotal,” setting in motion plans for future campaigns after several election cycles in which Republicans had run for federal offices and lost but with close enough results to encourage trying again.

In case there were some who didn’t trust political omens, Baker and those in his campaign worked assiduously to apply the blueprint to other races once out of the reach of Republicans in what had been a solidly Democratic state in the solidly Democratic South.

Alexander referred to it as “generosity.”

“I didn’t appreciate it so much at the time that I was too young to appreciate it,” he said of his early years with Baker. “He was an enormously attractive political figure. … Howard was the most persuasive man I ever knew. He stuck his neck out.”