VOL. 131 | NO. 260 | Friday, December 30, 2016
Presidential Election Tops Busy Year for Memphis Voters
By Bill Dries
2016 was an eventful election year in Shelby County, ending with the most popular voting cycle in Shelby County politics: the U.S. presidential general election in November. Slightly more than 60 percent of the county’s voters cast a ballot either during early voting in October or on the Nov. 8 Election Day.
It was the third and final election of Shelby County for the year, starting with the March ballot topped by the Tennessee presidential primary and followed by the August state and federal primaries as well as county elections for Shelby County Schools board seats and General Sessions Court clerk.
There were no statewide races on the 2016 ballot – something that only happens once every 12 years. It’s the even-year cycle that doesn’t include the race for governor, and neither U.S. Senate seat was up this year.
Between the August and November elections, the Tennessee Democratic Party disbanded the Shelby County Democratic Party over the local executive committee’s decision to pursue a criminal investigation of former local party chairman Bryan Carson. Carson had resigned in 2015 after a dispute with the committee over an accounting of local party funds.
Tennessee Party chairwoman Mary Mancini cited the state party’s obligation to “develop and monitor a minimum set of requirements.” She pledged a reorganization in which the local party will “determine their own needs, evaluate the effectiveness of past bylaws and leadership … and enact reforms that will bring in new people and build a strong grassroots organization.”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each campaigned in Shelby County before the Tennessee presidential primaries. Clinton carried the county in November, while Trump took the state’s 11 electoral votes.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
The disbanding of the local party also followed two disastrous county elections for Democrats – starting when Republicans captured every countywide office in the 2010 election cycle then successfully defended every one of those offices in 2014. If it hadn’t been for the Shelby County Assessor’s race shifting to the 2014 election cycle, it would’ve been another sweep for the GOP.
Even during the presidential primary season, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee had already decided to bypass any flow of campaign funds through the local party.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, with his easiest path to re-election since claiming the 9th District seat in 2006, was again leading local Democratic efforts for the national ticket. He won the most votes in any local race countywide on the November ballot, garnering 171,631 votes.
Cohen’s appeal for the national ticket included a call on local Clinton partisans to say nothing bad about Clinton’s chief rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Despite an initial foray locally, the Sanders campaign never committed resources to building any recognizable campaign structure in Memphis.
That’s not to say Shelby County or Tennessee were a priority for either Clinton’s campaign or that of Republican nominee and general election winner Donald Trump after the Tennessee primary votes were counted.
Trump drew 10,000 to a rally in Millington in late February, between the end of early voting and election day for the primaries.
“We’ve got a Republican Party, but a lot of outsiders are coming in because they like what I say,” he told the crowd. “We’re going to get a lot of people coming in, and we don’t care where they are coming from.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was among those in the party’s establishment backing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination. The day Trump rallied supporters in Millington, Haslam, in a written statement, urged Republicans “who do not want the party of Lincoln and Reagan taken over by Donald Trump to rally around Marco Rubio.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker had cautioned before the primaries that the party’s establishment ignored Trump’s ability to win primaries across the country at their own risk – not Trump’s.
A day after the Trump rally, Clinton campaigned at several churches in Memphis.
“We need to raise your voices and your vote in a way that people in authority begin to understand that we are all in this together,” she said at Greater Imani Christian Church in Raleigh. “America’s best years can still be ahead of us.”
The previous November, during a campaign stop at LeMoyne-Owen College, Clinton had said, “I’m going to campaign in Tennessee to try to turn it blue in November of 2016” – a reference to Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes going to the Republican nominee in every presidential general election since 2000.
Clinton carried Shelby County in the March Democratic primary, with 80 percent of the local vote to 19 percent for Sanders. She also took the state in the primary.
Trump took both Shelby County and the state in the GOP primary, but the skirmish among Shelby County Republicans was much closer: Trump carried the county by only 1,000 votes over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, with Rubio about 1,500 votes behind Cruz.
Republican contenders John Kasich and Ben Carson put in pre-primary time here, and both Rubio and Jeb Bush held fundraisers in the Memphis area prior to dropping out of the race.
For the general election campaign, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein campaigned in Crosstown, and Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate Bill Weld drew a fractious crowd to Minglewood Hall, upset by his late campaign declaration that he saw Clinton as “a safer bet” than Trump. Some Libertarians in the crowd called Clinton a “war criminal” and were critical of Weld for expressing any kind of support for either Clinton or Trump.
If the Shelby County results were not surprising, they showed an electorate that was not as energized as they had been in the past two presidential elections.
On the Democratic side, Clinton received 44,889 fewer votes than Barack Obama got in Shelby County in 2008 and 23,881 fewer than Obama received in 2012 – a reminder that while the Clintons had been popular with Memphis Democrats during Bill Clinton’s two terms in the White House, it changed in 2008 when Obama carried Shelby County in the Democratic presidential primary while Clinton took the state.
Trump, meanwhile, underperformed the number of votes the past two Republican presidential nominees received countywide, getting 27,225 fewer votes than John McCain did in 2008 and 19,440 fewer than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
The two partisan voting bases are considered critical elements in any statewide campaign.
Republican U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, whose 8th Congressional District takes in parts of East Memphis and East Shelby County as well as 14 rural West Tennessee counties, surprised many in February when he announced he would not run for re-election.
But the surprise rapidly gave way to declarations, with four Republican contenders announcing their bid for the August primary by the end of the day Fincher broke the news.
All told, the Republican primary drew 13 contenders, with six from Shelby County, including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, County Register Tom Leatherwood and former County Commissioner George Flinn.
Former U.S. Attorney and Shelby County Republican Party chairman David Kustoff of Germantown won the primary and the general election with a strong conservative message focused on terrorism and Kustoff’s prosecution of political corruption cases during his tenure as U.S. Attorney.
All of the Republican contenders pledged their allegiance to Trump as it became apparent he would be at the top of the party’s ballot in November.
The state Democratic Party never supported Rickey Hobson, the Democratic nominee in the heavily Republican 8th District.
Fincher indicated he might return to politics when U.S. Sen. Bob Corker or U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander choose not to seek re-election.
Republican state Rep. Curry Todd was upset in the August primaries by political newcomer Mark Lovell, the owner of the company that operates the annual Delta Fair and other similar fairs and expos across the country.
Todd was caught on video in the run-up to the primaries removing Lovell’s campaign signs and later was arrested for the action. Lovell posted Todd’s bail and ran unopposed in November.
Democrats, meanwhile, gained a seat in the Shelby delegation in November, as Democratic nominee Dwayne Thompson upset Republican incumbent Steve McManus in the District 96 state House contest. McManus had briefly considered getting into the 8th Congressional District primary, but when he committed to seek re-election, he said it would be his last term in Nashville.
McManus had been a vocal proponent of a deannexation bill in Nashville that would have allowed annexed parts of Memphis and several other cities to hold referendums on deannexing themselves.
It was one of the first challenges Strickland faced as mayor, and he not only went to Nashville but rolled out a ground campaign led by Alan Crone that stopped the legislation for the session.
Further down the ballot in November, Millington Mayor Terry Jones and Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner easily were re-elected to third terms. Alderman races in Germantown saw appointed Alderman Dave Klevan fall to Dean Massey in perhaps the most hotly contested suburban race.
Millington saw several seats change hands in its school board races, with charter school board members Louise Kennon and Greg Ritter being upset by Ronnie Mackin and Roger Christopher, respectively.