Election Verdict

Partisan politics hangs in the balance of today’s results

By Bill Dries

A week into the early voting period, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen was quizzing Democratic nominee for Shelby County mayor Lee Harris about the path of Harris’ campaign to election day. The race between Harris and Republican nominee David Lenoir was already getting dicey, with Lenoir’s attacks on Harris continuing at their debates and moving into mailers, including a controversial mailer featuring a picture of Harris that was noticeably darker than Harris is in real life.

Harris had relied on his experience as a state senator to fend off the debate attacks.

He settled on pointing out that Lenoir has never cast a vote to make any decision. He was also pointedly saying Lenoir played no significant role as county trustee in any decision made by elected bodies.

Polling official Nancy Stoll from Germantown sorts through voting signs on Aug. 1, 2018, at the Shelby County Election Commission as volunteers and officials kicked into high gear to get out voting materials for Thursday’s election. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

Lenoir countered that it was just that kind of executive experience that made him the right choice for county mayor while picking away at various votes by Harris across four years in the Legislature.

“We’ve done the last of the ads,” Harris told Cohen.

All of the other Democratic contenders on the Aug. 1 ballot in the room paused their conversations before a campaign press conference and looked at Harris. Cohen leaned forward in his chair.

“We’re on the air through election day,” Harris quickly added after a pause. The side conversations resumed. Cohen sat back in his chair.

“I think Lee Harris has gotten endorsements and support from places Democratic candidates for mayor haven’t since Bill Morris and A C Wharton were mayor,” Cohen said later.

The vote count after the polls close Thursday, Aug. 2, is expected to say a lot about where the majority Democratic county with the largest bases of Republicans and Democrats of any single county in Tennessee stands on partisan footing.

A total of 166 polling sites in precincts across Shelby County are open Thursday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Election technician Rick Kelly collects poll materials on Aug. 1, 2018, at the Shelby County Election Commission as volunteers and officials kicked into high gear to get out voting materials for Thursday’s election. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

When the polls close, follow the election results @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols with live coverage starting with the release of early vote totals and continuing until the last precinct totals are released.

Early voting turnout for the county general elections and state and federal primaries exceeded turnout for the same election cycle four years ago. But the 86,002 early voters is below the turnout in the 2010 election cycle.

The turnout – early vote and election day – in the same August 2014 elections was 27 percent, or 145,232 of the county’s 536,933 registered voters.

Republican turnout, as measured by those who voted in the Republican state and federal primaries, was 64,803 compared to 62,072 voting in the Democratic primaries. The remainder voted in the county general election only.

In the August 2010 election, 29.5 percent – or 176,887 of the county’s 600,349 voters – cast ballots early and election day. Of that total, 77,536 voted in the Democratic primaries and 77,478 in the Republican primaries with the rest voting in the county general election only.

The partisan gap in the early voting period that ended Saturday suggests this election might be a return to the wider turnout advantage Democrats had in 2006, when, to Cohen’s reference, A C Wharton was seeking re-election as county mayor.

Democrats turned out 20,000 more early voters than Republicans that year and had 48,000 more voters turn out early and on election day combined in the Democratic primaries than the Republican primaries.

Republican politicos blame a contentious four-way primary for governor on their side of the ballot for fewer early voters.

“They want to know what the truth is,” said U.S. Rep. Diane Black, one of those contenders as she campaigned in Memphis Sunday and talked about the impact of the attack ads. “They want to ask questions.”

It may be the only thing rival and former Tennessee economic and community development commissioner Randy Boyd agrees with Black on. Although Black and Boyd, as well as Franklin businessman Bill Lee, contend they have each withstood more attacks than the other two. And each says the attacks are confirmation that they are ahead in the race.

“We expected there would be some negativity,” Boyd said. “I didn’t expect to be attacked quite as much as we were. In fact, we didn’t expect to be attacked nearly as much as we were.”

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, the fourth major contender in the primary, has been largely left out of the fray.

Republicans on all sides of the statewide race hope Republicans are putting off their decisions until election day instead of being turned off by the race’s rhetoric and deciding to stay home on election day.

A total of 164 candidates are seeking offices on the Thursday ballot – 61 in the state and federal primaries, 27 running for positions on the state committees of the Democratic and Republican parties, 69 running for county offices and seven running for a seat on the Memphis City Council.

The elections cover 71 offices – three federal offices, 18 state offices, 20 slots on the state Democratic and Republican executive committees, 29 county elected positions and one super district seat on the Memphis City Council.

Three Democratic incumbent Shelby County commissioners – Willie Brooks, Eddie Jones and Van Turner – and one Democratic newcomer to the commission who won his primary in May, Mickell Lowery, are running unopposed on Thursday’s county general election ballot.

Local Republican Party leaders meet later in August to select a new nominee for Republican State Rep. Ron Lollar’s District 99 seat. Lollar died suddenly in July. Whoever the local party picks will face unopposed Democratic nominee Dave Cambron on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The ballot also includes a referendum on an amendment to the county government charter that would give any pay raise to state government employees approved by the Tennessee Legislature to the county mayor, sheriff, assessor, clerk, register and trustee even during a term of office. The county commission would retain its power under the county charter to raise the pay of the five elected officials effective with the next term of office.