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Vanderbilt political scientists weigh in on primary results, make predictions for November election

Aug. 2, 2002, 4:15 PM

August 2, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Three faculty of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Political Science today discussed the 2002 Tennessee primaries and made projections for the November general election.

In reviewing the primaries, the Vanderbilt faculty made three key observations:

*The outcome of the races reflected the growing strength of conservatism in Tennessee.

Conservative Democrats won almost every race in which they faced more moderate or liberal opponents, according to Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science. He said the Democratic voters supported conservative candidates over those with more liberal agendas.

Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, also favored conservative candidates. “The base of the Republican Party in Tennessee is becoming more conservative, and that hasn’t always been the case in Tennessee where the Republican Party has been more moderate to liberal,” said Geoff Layman, associate professor of political science.

Layman noted a key exception, that of the Republican race between U.S. Senate candidates Lamar Alexander and Congressman Ed Bryant. Bryant lost, despite being more conservative than Alexander and successfully defining the race in his own terms—by posing the question of which candidate was more conservative. Layman said Bryant lost because the religious right is not as mobilized in Tennessee as it is other southern states.

*Several candidates lost races they might otherwise have won because they let their opponents define the races. With the exception of Bryant, the candidates who successfully framed the issues for debate were victorious, Oppenheimer noted.

He said state Sen. Lincoln Davis defeated Fran Marcum in the Democratic race for the 4th District Congressional seat, because late in the campaign Davis redefined the race and no longer “let her get away with defining herself. The winner will be the one who has the ability to define what a campaign is about, who says what the issues are,” Oppenheimer said.

*The outcome of congressional primaries involving women candidates ran contrary to conventional wisdom.

According to Rosalyn Cooperman, a senior instructor in political science, women who run for office tend to be perceived as less conservative than the mainstream. Ordinarily, she said, this means they would be expected to emerge from the Democratic primaries and not from the Republican primaries. In Tennessee’s 2002 primaries, however, the Republican women were very conservative, fiscally and socially, and won the votes of a more conservative Republican voter base. The Democratic women didn’t win because Gayle Ray, seeking the 5th Congressional District seat, didn’t consistently stick to her strategy to run to the left of opponent Jim Cooper and because Marcum allowed Davis to redefine the race late in the game.

The faculty members resisted forecasting the outcome of the November elections, but they did make a few predictions regarding general trends:

*Cooperman predicted state Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who won the Republican nomination in the 7th Congressional District, will be the first woman from Tennessee elected in her own right to a seat in Congress.

*Approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of the moderate votes will be up for grabs by candidates of either party. The candidates, who often position themselves as more conservative or liberal during a primary to differentiate themselves from their own party opponents, will now move back toward the center, courting voters who might be convinced to cross party lines.

*Democrats will have an initial edge in races in which their Republican opponents had divisive primaries. Cooperman noted that Democrats such as gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen and U.S. Senate hopeful Bob Clement, who essentially ran uncontested in their primaries, have spent less of their warchests and have had the luxury of positioning themselves for the general election.

*There will be significant national interest in the Tennessee elections in November, owing to former Vice President Al Gore’s backing of certain candidates and because of the delicate balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Tennessee’s open seat for the Senate — once considered a lock for Republicans before Sen. Fred Thompson decided not to seek re-election — is now in play, and could help to swing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have only a one-seat majority going into November elections.

*The direction the national economy takes over the next few months also may be a factor in the November elections. “The candidate of the president’s party in mid-terms tends to get hurt if the economy isn’t very good,” Oppenheimer noted.

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