Opening in the South's Safest Seat

The announcement by Rep. Bill Jenkins (R.-Tenn.) last week that he would not seek re-election after a decade in Congress had historical significance: For only the third time in 45 years, the most Republican U.S. House district in the South will be open, with Jenkins’ successor almost certain to be decided in the GOP primary in May. Since Tennessee election law does not provide for run-offs, the nominee and likely congressman could be chosen by topping the primary field with a small percentage of the vote. That is what happened in 1996, when veteran Rep. (1961-96) Jimmy Quillen stepped down and Jenkins won the nomination with just 18% of the vote over 10 opponents. Jenkins, previously best known as the first Republican house speaker in the South since Reconstruction when he assumed the gavel in 1968 at age 32, led his closest opponent in the ’96 primary by a slim 331 votes.

Now, the Volunteer State’s 1st District (Northeastern Tennessee), which has not elected a Democrat to Congress in more than a century, is likely to host another crowded Republican slugfest. Among those Republicans either announced for the primary or in the exploratory stages are State Representatives Steve Godsey of Blountville and David Davis of Johnson City; former State Rep. Richard Venable of Kingsport; former Johnson City Mayor Vance Cheek; Jeff Anderson, vice president of East Tennessee State University; and former prosecutor Al Schmutzer of Severeville.

Tennessee sources agree that any of the GOP contenders would most likely vote similar to Jenkins (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%). As it was when Jenkins first won nomination to Congress a decade ago, the coming contest will almost surely be what political scientist V.O. Key dubbed a "friends and neighbors" primary: with few discernable issue differences and candidates working hard to get enough votes from their home turf to emerge on top.