NASHVILLE - The hill on which the Tennessee State Capitol is perched is the highest point in downtown Nashville, but Tuesday's Republican tsunami swept across it with a ferocity unmatched in modern Tennessee politics.
Going into Tuesday's balloting, Republicans held a commanding 19-14 margin in the state Senate but only a razor-thin edge of 50-48-1 in the House. (The 1 is Republican-turned-independent Kent Williams of Elizabethton, who was ceremoniously booted out of the GOP last year after he joined all the House Democrats in electing himself as House speaker over the Republican Caucus nominee. More about Williams below.)
According to unofficial returns on Secretary of State Tre' Hargett's website, the GOP picked up one Senate seat by defeating veteran Democratic legislator Doug Jackson of Dickson.
But Republicans ran up astonishing numbers in the House, making a net gain of 14 seats, according to the unofficial returns. GOP leaders had predicted at most a five or six seat gain. But if Tuesday night's numbers hold, the new House lineup is: Republicans 64, Democrats 34 and the independent Williams (who turned back a challenge by the Republican he unseated four years ago in his House district).
That kind of margin has huge implications, including:
· Republicans will have a free hand in redrawing district lines for Tennessee's nine U.S. House districts and, more importantly, the state legislative seats. Aided by Memphis lawyer, Republican national committeman and redistricting legal guru John Ryder, the legislative line drawers will be restricted only by federal and state law and the courts that enforce them. The new district lines will go into affect for the 2012 elections. It's conceivable the GOP will add even more to its statehouse majorities in that election by packing more Democrats into fewer districts.
· Governor-elect Bill Haslam, who arrived with his own huge mandate, will have a virtually free hand to pass legislation he wants.
· There will be pressure on the handful of rural Democrats left standing to switch parties. Whether or not the GOP wave subsides in two years is yet to be seen (the GOP might be tempted to overreach with legislation on guns, abortion and other hot-topic issues). But emboldened by this year's results, Republicans will likely mount serious challenges to some rural - and urban - Democrats they left untouched this year.
With the legislative and congressional results Tuesday, Democrats are left as essentially an inner city party with a few seats in rural areas in Middle and West Tennessee.
If the results hold up, there are no Democrats in the state Senate east of Chattanooga and none in the House east of Knoxville. Of the 34 House Democrats, two are from Knoxville, two from Chattanooga, eight from Nashville and 11 from Memphis. That leaves only 11 scattered across rural Middle and West Tennessee.
State GOP chairman Chris Devaney was ebullient.
"For the first time in modern history, Tennessee will have a Republican governor and majorities in both state legislative bodies simultaneously," he said in a statement. "Returns are still coming in, but as of this release, Republicans have made double-digit gains in the State House. For the first time in modern history, Republicans are going to lead at every level of government in this state. This is truly a historic day and Republicans are honored that voters have put their trust in our party to lead Tennessee."