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Alexander, Corker see the conservative wave

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, left, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both of Tennessee, at a campaign appearance for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam in Mt. Juliet Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, left, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both of Tennessee, at a campaign appearance for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam in Mt. Juliet Thursday.

Reports of the demise of the Democratic Party in Tennessee have not been exaggerated.

The Democrats are in trouble, and even if they escape some close calls on Tuesday, if Republicans take control of the state House, the GOP will be positioned to finish off much of what's left of the Democrats' longstanding power base in the state through redistricting.

It's quite possible only two of Tennessee's nine U.S. House seats will be held by Democrats after Tuesday's election. Democrats currently have a 5-4 advantage there.

It's a stunning trend. The anticipated Republican surge may not be specifically about Democrats but about whoever happens to be in charge of Congress in such remarkably crummy economic times. And that would be the Democrats, who know the score so well a couple of Tennessee's most senior congressional representatives decided to call it quits after their current terms. Bart Gordon and John Tanner, who as Blue Dogs ought to be considered part of the economic solution, have announced their exits. Republicans would be happy to take their seats.

Tennessee's two U.S. senators -- Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans -- spent all or part of their day Thursday stumping with Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam, and what they see happening is a nation that is simply fed up. You hear the word "concern" -- a lot.

"A year ago, when I would come home for huge town hall meetings, the concern was there, but this year it's much deeper, and it's real, and people are concerned about the amount of indebtedness our country has," Corker said at a stop Thursday in Winchester. "They're concerned about such government intervention.

"It's a reaction of people just being incredibly concerned about the direction of the country -- as they should be."

Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said Thursday in Murfreesboro that he's not predicting a Republican majority in the Senate -- a possibility but still considered a longshot by most observers. But there is no question about the conservative movement.

"What's going on is a concern about jobs and a concern about too much spending," Alexander said. "Too much debt, too many Washington takeovers. The American people are especially alarmed about the size of the debt. Forty-two cents out of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed, and it's going to bankrupt our country if we don't stop it."

Corker is trying to stop it. He spent weeks recently traveling the state with a presentation describing the problem, and he has offered a starting point for a solution. Knowing full well the snickers the mere mention of a nine-page bill can provoke -- and he intentionally plays it for effect -- Corker has nevertheless proposed a foundation for reining in debt. He wants the government to begin by at least agreeing on a limit to the amount of spending, capping it at an agreed-upon percentage of gross domestic product.

Corker spent time Wednesday with Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who Corker and many others believe will be the next House majority leader, to talk about the plan. He has also sent his proposal to think tanks that focus on budget issues. He's trying to build consensus on his approach.

"I'm sure over time it might make it to 10 or 11 pages," Corker said.

It's not clear how Congress is likely to function after this election. Republicans clearly are about to take the majority in the House, but the Senate is another story. Republicans need to gain 10 seats to reach majority status in the Senate, an unlikely feat.

Noted prognosticator Larry Sabato and his Crystal Ball issued its final projections Thursday, and he put the Senate figure at 8 Republican gains. So, if that's the case, for all the chatter about newfound Republican strength, Democrats will still hold the majority of the Senate, and they will still hold the White House. So everything's relative. There are currently 57 Democrats in the Senate and two independents who side with Democrats.

But Republicans and Democrats alike certainly have to be listening to the country, and people don't like what's happening in their capital.

"We're going to have a good day for Republicans Tuesday," Alexander said. "We're going to have a lot more Republican senators who are going to begin to change the direction of the country. But we still have a Democratic president, so we don't want to overpromise and overreach and underdeliver.

"We need to move in the right direction, step by step, keep the confidence of the American people and begin to change things."

Alexander agreed to play political scientist.

"There are seven toss-up races in the Senate," he said. "I think we've got 45 seats for sure, and then we've got seven races from California to West Virginia that are literally toss-ups. So Republicans could have 45-52 senators. There's an outside chance we could capture the Senate, but I'm not predicting that."

Republican Scott DesJarlais, the candidate who is making the most recent big move in Tennessee congressional races, joined the Haslam team at three stops Thursday. DesJarlais is running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis in the 4th District. DesJarlais was talking about a 45%-40% lead over Davis in the polls Thursday, but he put an interesting twist on the conservative wave when he spoke to a group at a restaurant in Manchester.

DesJarlais, noting the fear people have that once they vote someone into office that the office-holder will turn around and reverse course, said voters shouldn't let their own message wane either.

"As I've traveled around the district, you get groups like this together, and everyone is fired up because they're angry, and right now you are in control of America," DesJarlais told the group. "And one question that invariably comes up is, 'Dr. DesJarlais, how do I know you're not going to go to Washington and change?'

"We can't change this country long-term if you lose the enthusiasm that you have this year. So I want to throw that challenge back on all of you, not just this election do we need to get out in masses and have the energy we need to stay that way forever. We can't take our eyes off the ball. Don't get apathetic. Get out and vote now, and be there for us again in two years, and stay that way."

After his remarks to the group, DesJarlais offered his take on the conservative trend taking hold.

"The people right now are very upset with the leadership in Washington," he said. "The biggest complaint across the country is that we're not being listened to. There's been major legislation passed that Americans were polled on and overwhelmingly said, 'We don't want Obamacare,' 'We don't want the bailout,' 'We don't want the stimulus.' Yet the leaders don't listen. So there's a wave across America right now. They're looking for accountability in leadership.

"We've taken a message through Tennessee of less government, lower taxes and more freedom. And people are responding to that. So I think that's a big part of why we're moving forward in the polls and why we're seeing success in what we're trying to do."

DesJarlais said there is precedent that such voter enthusiasm can go away.

"It's happened before," he said. "They talk about 1994. They had a great Republican tsunami, and then they say the party blew it. I would contend Americans are supposed to control elections by how they vote, and it seems like that enthusiasm kind of waxes and wanes over the years.

"And I think people need to stay engaged just like they are this year. If they will do that, I think we will continue to have good, accountable leadership."

Sabato's Crystal Ball on Thursday put DesJarlais' race into the "lean Republican" column.


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