A Democratic Opening in Tennessee?

Word from Nashville, via Clint Brewer's City Paper blog, is that "professorial types" are talking up Senator Lamar Alexander as a potential successor to Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee, who is leaving his post for a second go-round as Ohio State's President.

If Alexander were to leave the Senate, it would create yet another pick-up opportunity for Democrats – who already must defend only 12 of the 34 seats that will be up next year.   To the extent Alexander has any electoral liabilities in Tennessee, they're within his own party, where conservative elements haven't always trusted him.  But in a general election, national Democrats would be forced to concede the race to him from the start.

Brewer goes out of his way to state that the chatter "does not mean Alexander has even mentioned" any interest in the vacant job.   And the Senator himself released a statement in which he said "I'm enjoying serving Tennessee as United States Senator and I hope the people of Tennessee renew my contract in 2008."  That could be taken to mean he wouldn't take the job, but Alexander's words also seem to leave plenty of wiggle room should Vanderbilt's higher-ups decide to make a serious run at Alexander. After all, he has no incentive to show any interest until and unless the school shows any.

The 67-year old Republican Senator would be a very logical candidate: He previously served as the University of Tennessee's President and also as George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Education.  Heading back to Tennessee for a career-capping run as the King of Vandy doesn't seem so far-fetched.

Brewer, for his part, isn't buying the talk.   He says Lamar is too loyal to the state GOP, which is in some disarray, and that he " has unlimited potential should another Republican land in the White House – a real possibility considering the blood bath that will be the Democratic Primary."  Specifically, he floats Alexander's name as a potential ticket-balancing VP for northerners Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

I have to disagree with that analysis.   Maybe Brewer has a point about Alexander's sense of loyalty, but I don't think Lamar, who failed in two quests for the GOP presidential nomination, senses much further opportunity on the national stage.   Only the most optimistic (delusional, really) Republican believes the party can recapture the Senate next year, and surely Alexander can't enjoy being in the minority.   And he may have made an attractive VP pick in, say, 1996, but by 2008 he's probably too past tense to warrant serious consideration. Beyond that, Brewer's claim that a GOP victory in '08 is "a real possibility" is a stretch.   Sure, the Republicans might win, but the odds will be long, given the history (parties rarely win three consecutive White House terms) and some ominous early signs (fund-raising numbers, President Bush's approval rating, and lop-sided advantages for the Democrats in generic head-to-head polling match-ups).

Also, keep in mind that Alexander made a play to move into the Senate's GOP leadership after last year's election – and failed, defeated for the Number Two slot by Trent Lott.   Had he won that race, I doubt Alexander would be interested in talk of the Vanderbilt Chancellorship.  But now?

Whether Vanderbilt will actually pursue him, I have no idea.   But if Alexander were to vacate his seat, the state's Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen, would appoint a successor.  Would he tab Harold Ford, who narrowly lost to Bob Corker in last year's Senate race and who is already itching for another statewide opportunity?   Or one of the state's moderate-to-conservative Democratic congressmen – John Tanner or Jim Cooper (who ran for and lost a Senate seat in 1994), maybe?   Or could the popular Bredesen arrange to have himself appointed?

The quasi-incumbency that comes with an appointment can be a nice leg-up, but it is no guarantee of success.   The last time Tennessee had a Senate vacancy came in 1992, when Democratic Governor Ned McWherter appointed Harlan Matthews to replace Al Gore, who had just been elected Vice-President.   Matthews declined to seek a full-term, and the ultimate Democratic nominee (Cooper) was easily beaten by Fred Thompson. 

But Democrats might also get an assist from the GOP in the case of an open seat.   The relatively moderate Corker only won last year's Republican nomination because the right-wing vote was split among two candidates.  If the party's conservative wing were to play it smart in '08 and unite behind a single primary candidate, it could result in the nomination of a less electable general election candidate.

Of course, the biggest wild card in an open '08 Tennessee Senate race would be what happens in next year's Republican presidential primaries: If the Volunteer State's favorite son, Fred Thompson, gets the nod, his home state coat-tails could doom the Democrats' pick-up hopes.