Anti-Incumbent Fervor Skips Tennessee District
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MANCHESTER, Tenn. -- Amid the rolling hills of Tennessee's Fourth Congressional District, which wraps around the state's rural middle like a cigar band, it is difficult to find a lot of enthusiasm for the Obama administration. The residents of the district -- farmers, factory workers, small business owners -- are abidingly conservative.
But they do love their incumbents. Since the district was configured in its current form in 1983, not one incumbent has been voted out. And though he is facing some sharp headwinds this time around, Lincoln Davis, a four-term Democrat, is not planning to be the first.
Mr. Davis is sticking to the Blue Dog playbook that has served him and other Southern Democrats for cycle after cycle, and one that is being copied across the country this year by other Democrats who are scrambling to separate themselves from the national party. The golden rule: keep it close to home.
"In the district that I represent, it is a local race, it is not a national race," Mr. Davis said. He added, "People know me."
Republicans in Tennessee do not deny Mr. Davis's folksy appeal, which is why some of them see the race, which has been thinly polled, as a national bellwether.
"He's a good ol' boy and everybody likes him," said Jeff Ward, a lawyer in the western part of the state who has advised several state and local Republican campaigns. "If he loses, it will be the tidal wave."
First elected to office in 2002, when he promised during the campaign that no one would "outgun me, outpray me or outfamily me," Mr. Davis has long adhered to the Blue Dog playbook, trumpeting endorsements by the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life and describing himself as an "independent conservative."
He voted against the health care bill and the climate change bill, though he did vote for the stimulus, approving of its financing of rural infrastructure projects.
"Some people say, 'Well, he's a Democrat,' " said Tracy St. John, 41, who works at the Jiffy Burger here and describes herself as a swing voter. "But I like him."
That is about as good as Democrats can hope for this year. Republicans are having none of it. They argue, as they do in many Blue Dog districts, that a conservative Democrat is still a Democrat, and cannot be trusted.
"He votes as he needs to for his constituency but not as he really wants to," said John Shields, an engineer in a factory and head of a county Republican Party in Mr. Davis's district.
In an interview, Scott DesJarlais, a physician and the Republican challenger, highlighted Mr. Davis's vote for the stimulus package, which Mr. DesJarlais considers wasteful spending. And even though Mr. Davis voted against the health care bill, Mr. DesJarlais criticized him for not actively trying to stop it.
Mr. DesJarlais' campaign Web site decries Mr. Davis's "tendency to hide from his liberal votes in D.C. with 'aww shucks' rhetoric and stories about pickup trucks back home."
Mr. Davis has hardly been liberal in Washington, but he has not distanced himself from the party with the fervor of some others. The Democrat running in Tennessee's Sixth District, Brett Carter, called for Nancy Pelosi to step aside as speaker. In Mississippi, Gene Taylor, a Democrat running for his 12th term, signed a petition to repeal the health care plan.
By one school of Democratic campaign strategy, these moves are missteps, as they return the conversation to the sore subject of Washington rather than keeping it trained on the district. But there are others who, while agreeing that Democrats should not so blatantly run from the party agenda, argue they should not hide from it either.
Steve Jarding, a Democratic political consultant, has long encouraged Democrats to embrace the culture of the rural South, arguing that it dovetails with the party's history of populist economic policies.
But Mr. Jarding insists that culture is not enough on its own, even this year. Democrats should not be defending their cultural bona fides while steering clear of the party's policies, he said -- they should be standing up for the whole package.
"I don't see Democrats out fighting on the policy side," Mr. Jarding said. "The confidence in Washington is so low, it's: 'I'm going to fall back to culture.' I would say absolutely, use culture, but if you think that alone will put you over the top, well, you've got to rethink."
There is, of course, another way to avoid talking about what is going on in Washington, and that is to keep the focus on the fitness of the opponent, which Democrats have been doing nationwide. Mr. Davis's campaign is no exception, and on Friday evening it released an ad citing a series of lurid accusations from Mr. DesJarlais' former wife in court papers, part of what appeared to be a very messy divorce.
The accusations in the ad have been percolating around the district for weeks. Mr. DesJarlais said in an earlier interview that they were false -- his former wife was found in contempt at one point -- and that they simply distract from the issues. But a spokesman for the DesJarlais campaign said that voters have been calling about them, prompting an ad, also released on Friday, in which Mr. DesJarlais' current wife vouches for her husband.
Still, this tactic seems to have worked to a degree in a much higher-profile race in western Tennessee, though it involves a somewhat less-salacious topic.
When John Tanner, an 11-term Democrat and a founder of the Blue Dog coalition, announced he was retiring from the Eighth Congressional District seat, Republicans fought excitedly for the nomination, leading to the most expensive House primary in the country. Left standing was Stephen Fincher, a gospel-singing farmer from Frog Jump, who promised to "Plow Congress."
He has since been well-financed and widely favored over his Democratic opponent, Roy Herron, a state senator. But questions raised by Mr. Herron's campaign about Mr. Fincher's campaign filings and one of his contributions -- as well as Mr. Fincher's refusal to address those questions -- have dominated local news coverage for weeks.
The questions stoked suspicion among fiscal purists and some Tea Party members, who are already critical of Mr. Fincher for accepting federal farm subsidies. But they are supporting a third-party candidate, Donn Janes, in any event. Mr. Herron has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has written a book on God and politics. But, Mr. Ward said, the Democrat would not get his support even if he dressed up and sang Charlie Daniels songs.
"If he was Charlie Daniels," Mr. Ward said, "it still wouldn't make a difference."
First Published October 9, 2010 2:01 am