Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Poll finds most Americans misunderstand scope of 'Medicare for All' | Planned Parenthood chief readies for 2020 | Drugmakers' lawsuit ramps up fight with Trump Overnight Health Care: Poll finds most Americans misunderstand scope of 'Medicare for All' | Planned Parenthood chief readies for 2020 | Drugmakers' lawsuit ramps up fight with Trump Trump's health care focus puts GOP on edge MORE’s (R-Tenn.) decision to retire when his term ends in 2021 marks what could be the end of a genteel era of politics that is increasingly subsumed by more conservative elements within the Republican Party — both in Tennessee and across the country.

Since joining the union in 1796, Tennessee’s political geography has been defined by its Grand Divisions, the three regions each represented by a star on the state flag. Until the last generation, two of those regions — West Tennessee, with its population center in Memphis, and Middle Tennessee, based around Nashville, were as reliably Democratic as anywhere in the rest of the Solid South.

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But East Tennessee stood out, an island of Republican red in the vast sea of Democratic blue. The region’s small-r republicanism was a legacy of the Civil War, when most counties in the eastern third of the state voted to remain with the Union, rather than secede.

“If there is an area of the state that is truly committed to the Republican Party, that would be it,” said Bill Brock, who in 1970 became just the second Tennessee Republican elected to the U.S. Senate since direct elections began in 1914. “It was very much abolitionist and unionist.”

To this day, only one congressional district in state history, the Knoxville-based 2nd District held by retiring Rep. John DuncanJohn James DuncanLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Tennessee New Members 2019 Live coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill MORE Jr. (R), has never been held by a Democrat.

Most of the Tennessee Republicans who win statewide offices come out of the east. Brock hailed from Chattanooga. His seatmate, the late Howard Baker, came from Huntsville, north of Knoxville. Andrew Johnson, President Lincoln’s successor, is buried in his adopted hometown of Greeneville, east of Knoxville.

There are few exceptions, and even then most Middle and West Tennessee Republicans who won statewide had deep ties to East Tennessee — and to Baker, specifically. Former Gov. Don Sundquist, of Memphis, had run Baker’s presidential campaign before winning statewide office. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, of Nashville, had worked for Baker on the Senate Watergate Committee.

Only a few, like former Gov. Winfield Dunn of Memphis and former Sen. Bill Frist, of Nashville, broke the mold. And when Dunn broke from fellow Republicans in East Tennessee, he suffered politically.

Dunn served a single term in the 1970s. He lost a comeback bid in 1986 after opposing the establishment of a medical school at East Tennessee State University; then-Rep. James Quillen, the political boss of East Tennessee Republicans, made it known that his voters were free to support the Democratic candidate, longtime state House Speaker Ned McWherter.

McWherter backed the creation of what is now East Tennessee State’s Quillen College of Medicine.

The latest generation of Tennessee Republican leaders are all easterners. Gov. Bill Haslam, who is leaving office after two terms, was the mayor of Knoxville. Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE ran Chattanooga before coming to Washington. And Alexander hails from Maryville, along the state’s eastern border with North Carolina.

Those Republicans, from Baker and Brock to Corker and Alexander, were less ideological than today’s brand of combative conservative, and they built powerful careers. Baker served as Senate Republican leader and as former President Reagan’s chief of staff in the White House. Brock became head of the Republican National Committee, and later Labor Secretary under Reagan.

Corker leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Alexander, himself a former Cabinet secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, now heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The carefully built coalitions between Tennessee’s three regions helped define a century of state politics, beginning in 1910, when the Democratic boss E.H. Crump began building his political base in Memphis.

“You had the Lincoln Republicans in the east, you had the very Southern Democrats in the middle, and then you had the riverboat gambler Democrats in the West,” said Tom Ingram, a longtime advisor to Alexander. “West Tennessee Democrats were more conservative across the board than East Tennessee Republicans.”

But as Tennessee has turned a deeper shade of red in recent decades, with Yellow Dog Democrats abandoning the party to vote GOP, other more-ideological Republicans — those who come from central and West Tennessee — have started to take the earlier generation’s place.

Sen.-elect Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE, who started her political career running the Williamson County Republican Party in Middle Tennessee, is only the second Republican not from the east to win a Senate seat in modern history. Gov.-elect Bill Lee (R), a political outsider, hails from the central part of the state.

Many of the potential candidates mentioned as possible successors to Alexander — Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackBottom line Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion Democrats take heat from party | More states sue Purdue over opioid epidemic | 1 in 4 in poll say high costs led them to skip medical care Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee MORE (R), former Rep. Stephen FincherStephen Lee FincherLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP Trump backs Blackburn's Tennessee Senate bid MORE (R), Rep.-elect Mark GreenMark GreenOvernight Energy: Trump appoints Social Security watchdog to also oversee Interior | Critics question EPA guidance on pipelines | Battle over science roils EPA Overnight Energy: Trump appoints Social Security watchdog to also oversee Interior | Critics question EPA guidance on pipelines | Battle over science roils EPA Trump appoints Social Security Administration watchdog to also oversee Interior MORE (R) — are from the central or western parts of the state. All are more ideologically driven, and more conservative, than the East Tennessee Republicans the state usually elects.

Political observers and state historians say those from the other regions of the state are more ideological because they had to wrest power from Democrats who long controlled local politics. Where Eastern Republicans won concessions from Democrats in power by compromising, Western and Middle Tennessee Republicans won power by beating those Democrats at the ballot box.

“Middle Tennessee Republicans had to win their power by the sword. So ideological differences converting conservative Democrats is how they took over. East Tennessee Republicans were born that way,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist in Washington who hails from Tennessee. “The cultural issues are what cleaved Democrats away in Middle and West Tennessee.”

No candidate has publicly said they will run for Alexander’s seat. But his exit, following Corker’s and Haslam’s, has some East Tennessee Republicans wondering where they fit in to the modern party.

“The hope I have is that we can replace [Alexander] with somebody of Lamar’s breadth of interests,” Brock said. “He’s a pretty good example of the kind of senator we need these days.”