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VOL. 9 | NO. 46 | Saturday, November 12, 2016

After The Vote

How Clinton-Trump informs our local politics going forward

By Bill Dries

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If you stood in certain places during the last days of the 2016 campaign in Memphis you could see the 2018 elections even if you couldn’t see Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s national victory over Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.

Some of the faces pleading the causes of Trump and Clinton in a county that has seen neither since March in the primary races will be on the ballot for governor, the state Legislature, county offices and Congress in future elections years.

Other partisans are building the structure for party gains – Democratic and Republican.

There are lots of scenarios and a few more added to that since Trump won.

Consider outgoing 8th District Congressman Stephen Fincher, who introduced his successor in Congress, David Kustoff, to a small gathering in Germantown the last weekend of the campaign.

Fincher’s announcement in February that he would not seek another two-year term in the U.S. House spawned a 13-candidate Republican field in the August primaries. Kustoff emerged atop the field. Fincher’s decision came with hints of a possible return.

“In a few years, when both of our senators are out, we may look at doing something again,” Fincher told the Shelby County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Gala in February.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s seat is up in 2018. It could be an open seat sooner than that depending on how much weight you put on speculation about a Trump cabinet position. One version making the rounds has Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a possible Secretary of State.

Wendy Williams works to get out the vote for Laura Meanwell at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church in Germantown.

(Memphis News/Alan Howell)

If that were to happen, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would appoint Corker’s replacement in the Senate, likely with an eye toward giving a Republican an advantage in the 2018 elections.

Haslam backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential primaries and said once Trump was the nominee that he would not vote for Trump, choosing instead to write-in Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

“We look forward to working with President-elect Trump,” Haslam told reporters the day after the election in Nashville. “Regardless of who won, we were going to do what I think all good citizens should do – hope for all success for the new president and for us.”

Even before the election, some local Republicans, most notably county commissioner Terry Roland, were warning on a price to pay for not supporting the party’s nominee.

“For the ones that didn’t stick with Trump, it’s going to be different for them,” Roland said last month as the early voting period began. “It’s a good thing Gov. Haslam is in his second term. If he was going for his second term, he probably wouldn’t make it. And he probably messed up his chance for ever being senator of this state.”

Roland was the chairman of Trump’s West Tennessee campaign and is running in the 2018 Republican primary for Shelby County mayor. The 10,000 people who greeted Trump at a Millington rally in February was the largest crowd Roland has ever spoken to in his political career.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Shelby County Republican Party chairman Lee Mills said the last weekend of campaigning. “We have divisions in the party – we have pro-Trump and never-Trump. Once we get past Tuesday – win or lose – we will have a building and a coming together and we will move forward at least on a local level.”

The local level includes much success in the last six years for countywide non-judicial offices. Republicans hold all but two of them – Assessor and General Sessions Court Clerk.

Democrat Steve Cohen addresses supporters on election night at his victory party at the Rec Room. Cohen won re-election to another two-year term as the U.S. 9th District representative, a seat he's held since 2006.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)


There is no Shelby County Democratic Party.

Its demise is a result of differences over how to field competitive candidates for countywide offices. The faction in control of the local party’s executive committee has argued against candidates with crossover potential, saying the majority Democratic voting base majority in Shelby County is enough.

The local party’s charter was revoked by the state Democratic Party between the March primaries and the November general elections.

Yet local Democrats have never relied on the local executive committee or the party structure as a base for their efforts. And toward the end of a general election campaign in which there wasn’t so much as even a surrogate coming through the county to campaign for Trump or Clinton, local Democrats were working on building toward majorities in the Tennessee Legislature where Republicans have super majorities in each chamber.

“We really have talent on our side,” Democratic state Sen. Lee Harris said the last weekend of the campaign as he held a fundraiser at a home in Chickasaw Gardens. “This is not the time to stop or slow down.”

The co-chair of the Clinton campaign in Tennessee, Bill Freeman of Nashville, is a possible Democratic contender for governor in 2018. His presence at the Chickasaw Gardens event was an introduction as well as a statement of confidence in the way things were going for Clinton nationally.

“The Republican Party is doing all they can do to help us elect Democrats,” Freeman said. “I don’t think we could ask any more of the Republican Party. … We are excited about our chances in the state, doing better than people expect us to do.”

Voters leave the polling place at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church after casting their ballots.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Mills, meanwhile, was ambitiously optimistic about Trump’s chances in the county outside Memphis.

“Will Shelby County go blue this time? Possibly,” he said. “It might be light blue. I believe record numbers of African-Americans will vote for Donald Trump this time. … Enthusiasm for Donald Trump is a lot higher than it is for Hillary Clinton.”

In the gap between the end of early voting and Election Day in Memphis, Harris, who is one of five Democrats in the 33-member state Senate, clearly thought Democrats had momentum on their side in 2016 and beyond.

“I don’t know what there is to be enthusiastic about on the other side,” he said. “I do know there are a bunch of incumbents and generally incumbency creates some challenges. It is what it is. So it will take more than the 2016 cycle to be sure because of the nature of incumbency, not because all of a sudden there’s a great message over there or there’s something to get jazzed about. I don’t think there is.”

But as harbingers for either side, Trump and Clinton underperformed in Shelby County. That is based on a delayed vote count that at press time was still lacking 2,970 absentee votes.

Clinton got 208,320 votes in Shelby County compared to 232,201 for Barack Obama four years earlier and 253,209 for Obama in 2008.

Shelby County voters overwhelming chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president. County voters also approved a ballot question that will allow the sale of wine in retail stores in unincorporated areas of the county.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Trump got 116,096 countywide, compared to 135,536 for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 143,321 for John McCain in 2008.

Memphis did get post-primary visits from Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld – representing two of the five other presidential tickets on the Tennessee ballot.

Weld got heckled during a small rally at Minglewood Hall for earlier statements he made on the campaign trail prior to the Memphis stop saying he preferred Clinton to Trump.

Weld and the top of the Libertarian ticket, Gary Johnson, were a distant third in Shelby County balloting at 6,924 votes. Stein fared worse at 1.977 votes, finishing well behind the 4,292 write-in votes.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips, at the helm for her second election in Shelby County, noted a spike in new voter registration leading up to the November election – what she termed a “dramatic spike.”

“Still 2016 is nowhere as high as 2008, yet turnout has exceeded 2008 and 2012,” she said in an email while sharing other demographic data. “This suggests to me that voters who newly registered in 2008 have remained active voters.”

And 2008 was the election year that Shelby County Democrats went for Obama over Clinton in the Tennessee presidential primary even as Clinton carried the state before ultimately dropping out and endorsing Obama.

More than 100 Clinton supporters, many dressed in pants suits – a staple of Clinton’s political wardrobe for decades – rallied the last campaign weekend with a march across the Big River Crossing.

In the close quarters of the crossing, there was a political exchange.

“Trump’s going to beat her ass,” a woman said as she passed going the opposite direction of the Clinton supporters on the boardwalk. The Clinton group came with its own music – playing a recording of the 1970s Helen Reddy anthem “I Am Woman.”

“I’m with her,” those in another part of the Clinton column chanted. And a man walking in the opposite direction filled every pause with “for prison.”

Harris vows Democrats will be invoking Donald Trump and the conduct of the 2016 campaign in the next two years as they seek political gains closer to home.

“We’ll be talking about Donald Trump in 2018,” he said. “That’s going to be something that’s going to hang around the necks of candidates in 2018 throughout the South. That is not going away.”

Mills points to a different legacy.

“I think most people in Tennessee are conservative,” he said. “We get to them and we say, ‘We have conservative values – Republicans are your conservative party.’ And when you talk about the issues, people will elect Republicans.”

PROPERTY SALES 56 295 6,392
MORTGAGES 26 180 4,035
BUILDING PERMITS 128 840 15,361
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