Most Shelby County Election Results Were Predictable 

Victorious Democrat Lee Harris on election night

Jackson Baker

Victorious Democrat Lee Harris on election night

Republicans were not the only ones dismayed at the results of the August 2nd election. To be sure, the GOP took a licking in races for countywide positions, and they lost a swing district on the Shelby County Commission, giving Democrats a decisive 8-5 majority for the next four years. But, with the exception of Democrat Michael Whaley's win in District 5, a city swing district, Shelby County Republicans held their own in localized one-on-one competition. On a countywide scale, though, the GOP fared less well, even in nonpartisan races. Two judicial candidates bearing Republican endorsements — David Rudolph and Jennifer S. Nichols — went down in defeat, despite having the advantage of being incumbents, albeit as recent interim appointees.

In a general way, the law of averages is what determined the outcomes. Yes, there are in theory more Democrats than Republicans in Shelby County; this year, unlike the case in 2010 and 2014, there was a general consensus in both parties that, quality-wise, Democratic candidates were as good as — if not better than — than their Republican counterparts, and, for a change, adequately funded. Crossover voting in the GOP's direction, a factor in the previous two elections, was virtually non-existent this year. 

Similarly, there is the related fact that there are more African Americans in Shelby County than whites, and, while post-racial results have been known to occur in local elections (think Steve Cohen or, when he still had a bloom on, A C Wharton), it would seem to be human nature that, all else being equal, people will vote for their racial group-mates. Accordingly, in relatively close races between blacks and whites, the racial factor tilted toward African Americans.

Finally, in local politics as in state and national elections, women have steadily become a more active force, and people, including other women, who in the binary sense are yet another majority, have no compunction in voting for women.

Taking those three factors into account — party, race, and gender — a fairly reliable rule-of-thumb can be stated that, where any two are present, they can be decisive for the candidate on the majority side of the ledger. 

Thus, Democrat John Boatner Jr., a white candidate in the primary for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, was at a disadvantage in his contest with Erika Stotts Pearson, an African American. And, while Boatner had more money and was clearly the more active of the two candidates (omnipresent at campaign events, and with several large yard signs bearing his name on upscale sections of Walnut Grove Road), he was a first-time candidate, and, as a white male contending with an African American female, was on the wrong side of the arithmetic. (In his case, too, the power of the city vote, where Democrats are numerous, out-did the party's rather scanty presence these days in the West Tennessee counties that comprise the rest of the district.)

A few other upsets reflect various versions of the Democratic/black/female tilt.

Circuit court Judge Rudolph had, by general consent, performed well after his 2017 appointment by Governor Haslam to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Judge Robert L. "Butch" Childers, and his diligence as a candidate, often in the company of his personable wife, Elizabeth, an administrator at the University of Memphis Law School, could not be faulted. The scion of an East Memphis family, educated at MUS and Vanderbilt, he was well-financed, to boot.

But he was felled by Yolanda Kight, an equally impressive and diligent young black woman from a humble background in South Memphis, who had risen very much by her own efforts to attain the lesser judicial rank of magistrate. Aided also by the "upset" factor which can generate sympathy in an electorate, she ended with a narrow win over Rudolph. 

Another such case was the victory in a Democratic state Senate primary race of Gabby Salinas, whose Bolivian family had immigrated to Memphis so that young Gabby could be treated for childhood cancer at St. Jude. On the threshold of being a scientist in her own right, she survived three different bouts with the disease, and, though she was faced with a better-financed opponent, the able and equally appealing Le Bonheur chaplain David Weatherspoon, her backstory may have made the difference. Her next challenge will be, as an advocate of Medicaid expansion, against Republican state Senator Brian Kelsey.

There were other unexpected outcomes. The victories of Joyce Dorse-Coleman and Michelle McKissack over Shelby County Schools Board incumbents Mike Kernell and Chris Caldwell conformed to the above-mentioned formula, though McKissack's in particular also owed much to her support from charter-school advocates. Though hardly a novice in politics, the oft-controversial city Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, victorious as a Democrat over Republican Bobby Simmons for Juvenile Court Clerk, was expected to be shut out of the white vote entirely. Further analysis will determine whether she wasn't or whether she was but was able to prevail anyhow.

Most outcomes on August 2nd conformed to the form sheet. It was a Democratic year, not so much because of a better-than-usual turnout but because their candidates were measurably better than in previous years, staving off the customary flow of crossover Democratic voters to Republican candidates that had marked prior elections. 

In the marquee local races, State Senator Lee Harris for county mayor was clearly an able political figure, as was Chief Deputy Floyd Bonner for sheriff, both of them sufficiently so to attract crossovers of their own to augment what was already their majority standing.  

The Democratic blue wave was no surprise. In the vernacular, this was how it was 'sposed to be.

Ford Canale's win for a a vacant city council position was due to his maintaining establishment support against a field of several candidates breaking up the dissident vote. In the statewide contests, Republican Bill Lee won his gubernatorial primary by being himself; Democrat Karl Dean won his through superior resources and fidelity to a centrist party message. The U.S. Senate primary wins of Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn were no-brainers.

The final win of the mid-summer election season occurred Monday night at Shelby County Republican headquarters, where a small caucus of steering committee members from the state House District 99 of late state Representative Ron Lollar elected onetime state Senator Tom Leatherwood, outgoing as register and a loser in his race for Circuit Court Clerk, as a compromise choice to run against Democratic nominee Dave Cambron in November.

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    • Seeing Double

      Van Turner creates a new role for Councilman/Commissioner Ed Ford; Bredesen vs. Blackburn ad war under way.
    • Starting Over

      As county government changes faces, deeper alterations may be needed.
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