Difficult as it might be to extract a trend from a low-turnout election in which very few races were at stake, the results from Shelby County on Tuesday, March 6th, could still be revealing.
Citing a column last week in the D.C. periodical National Journal by Reid Wilson, John Ryder, the Memphis lawyer and politically percipient Republican national committeeman from Tennessee, hazarded some conclusions about the election year that are anything but reassuring to entrenched politicians, whether incumbents or not.
What Wilson, editor-in-chief of the online political tip-sheet Hotline, had discerned and explored at some length was the likelihood that in 2012 there existed an "anti-incumbent mood in a post-redistricting cycle," very much like the one that in 1992 saw numerous political upsets, including the victory of Democrat Bill Clinton over an incumbent Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
In an email in which he applied Wilson's findings to local circumstances, Ryder focused on the results of last week's Shelby County primaries for county positions, as well as on the "Super Tuesday" presidential-primary outcome, which saw GOP challenger Rick Santorum overpower front-runner Mitt Romney in Tennessee.
Ryder noted the losses, unexpected in most quarters, of former two-term county commissioner Marilyn Loeffel to political newcomer Steve Basar in the Republican primary for a vacant commission seat (District 1, Position 3) and that of the favored Sidney Chism, chairman of the Shelby County Commission and an established political broker, to interim Clerk Ed Stanton Jr. in the Democratic primary race for general sessions clerk.
"I think that Wilson is right," Ryder wrote. "[T]here is a general anti-establishment sentiment among the voters this year. That is why Santorum could defeat Romney while Basar could defeat Loeffel in the same election. It wasn't just that 'evangelicals' voted for Santorum. It was that Republican primary voters cast their ballots against the establishment — whether it was the Mormon Mitt Romney or the Baptist Marilyn Loeffel — and Stanton [could] defeat Chism."
There were other factors at work, of course: Basar, a Schering-Plough executive and a moderate (though, like all contemporary Republicans, he describes himself as a "conservative"), had considerable support among the upscale residents of the district's Poplar Corridor, and that gave him at least the potential to balance the support that Loeffel, once the central figure in the now-dormant Christian Right organization FLAIR, could presumably count on in the socially conservative precincts of Cordova.
And, though Chism had long been accustomed to getting voters to the polls on behalf of his political allies (among them former Mayor Willie Herenton) and his yard signs seemed to dominate the neighborhoods of inner-city Memphis, he was up against a respected adversary in Stanton, a longtime county administrator and the father of Ed Stanton III, the current U.S. attorney locally.
But Ryder — and Wilson — may be on to something. Though both the Basar-Loeffel race and that involving Stanton and Chism (where there were three other candidates, including suspended Clerk Otis Jackson) were squeakers, it could well be argued that the voters demonstrated a restlessness with the familiar and a determination to try something new.
If so, and if the impulse holds through the August general elections, it might hearten Democrat Steve Ross, the audio-visual technician and blogger, unopposed last week, who will be on the ballot to oppose Basar, and Rick Rout, the longtime Republican activist who won a surprisingly close primary race against newcomer James Finney and will carry the GOP standard against Stanton.
Ross is a decided underdog in the heavily Republican Commission District 1, and Rout, too, will be hard-pressed, though he — and other local Republicans — can draw some encouragement from the results of the 2010 countywide election, in which the Republican slate, though in theory demographically disadvantaged, defeated Democrats in all races.
In the other major race on last week's local ballot, incumbent Assessor Cheyenne Johnson handily defeated challenger Steve Webster in the Democratic primary, while veteran real-estate appraiser Tim Walton emerged as the Republican winner in a three-way competition with Randy Lawson and John Bogan. Walton, also an underdog, will be hoping that the anti-establishment factor, if one indeed exists, works in his favor.
• Ryder, incidentally, is a formally unpledged delegate to this year's Republican National Convention, which some possibly wishful-thinking prognosticators (read: Democrats and champions of GOP challengers Santorum and Newt Gingrich) hope could be the first open convention held by either national party in more than a half-century.
At press time, voting was under way in the presidential primaries of Mississippi and Alabama, amid indications of a close three-way battle in both states —with libertarian Ron Paul the only candidate with no chance of an outright victory.
Win or lose, supporters of Romney had to be encouraged at their man's strong race in the two Deep South states (though the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist continues to flounder in his efforts to speak in the vernacular of ordinary folks — waxing enthusiastic in Alabama, for example, over "cheesy grits," when surely what he was talking about were plain old cheese grits).
The primaries in Mississippi and Alabama were widely regarded as the last stand of former speaker of the House Gingrich, an intellectually adventurous sort regarded as a loose pistol in Republican Party establishment circles. Gingrich has risen from the dead already two, maybe three, times, but it was the consensus that anything less than a dual win this week would further cripple chances that were already hobbling.
Gingrich made a visit last week to the Landers Center in nearby Southaven, where he addressed a rally of some 300 people crowded into a smallish side room within the sprawling amphitheater. Signs among his supporters saying "Don't Believe the Liberal Media" underscored the ironic nature of Gingrich's candidacy at this point: His best showing, a late-January walloping of Romney in South Carolina, followed two debates in which he had scored rhetorical points against the "elite media." But without further victories to fuel his fund-raising, Gingrich is largely dependent on free media to get a hearing.
Though Gingrich's "Winning Our Future" Super-Pac received fresh infusions recently from benefactor Sheldon Adelson (rumored amount: $10 million), that is very likely the casino mogul's last gift to the former speaker.
Santorum, meanwhile, was even more cash-needy, though he had won enough states and delegates — mainly in the Midwest — to sustain a plausible challenge to Romney.