Aug 29 2010
01:11 pm

Like most people here I was deeply disappointed in the recent county commission elections in Blount County in which three excellent Democratic commissioners were voted out of office. Since I moved to Blount County in 2007 I've seen this pattern play out twice before already. In August 2008 Democratic judge Mike Meares was defeated by Republican David Duggan by over 60-40. And in November the county voted for John McCain over Barack Obama roughly 70-30 - despite the fact that the rest of the nation voted 53-46 for Obama. This is a deeply Republican county.

But just how long has this county been so Republican? We always hear "since the Civil War." To look at the numbers from the 19th century not only confirms this theory, but also reveals some interesting comparisons. Reading through Durwood Dunn's excellent "Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1837" I noticed a chart with election returns for Blount County and for Cades Cove. As a general rule, Cades Cove was more Democratic than the county as a whole. In some ways this still holds up - Happy Valley, which is geographically the most like old Cades Cove is actually one of the most Democratic precincts in the county. So how did the county as a whole vote in the late 19th century?

In the first election after the Civil War Ulysses Grant got 92% of the vote in Blount County. Obviously the disfranchisement and harassment of ex-Confederates led to this lopsided margin. But the number of voters - 1,361 - was significant enough to demonstrate massive community support for the GOP standard-bearer.

By the 1890s the pattern held true. In the realigning 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, McKinley won Blount County 73.4% to 26.6%. Yes, Barack Obama got a greater share of the vote in Blount County than did William Jennings Bryan! More remarkable was the fact that McKinley was detested in most of the rural South as a symbol of the Northeastern banking and industrial elite while Bryan and his famous "Cross of Gold" perfectly encapsulated the evangelical and populist spirit of the white South at the time. But not in Blount County.

Nearly every election after that has produced a similar result: Republicans get between 65 and 75 percent of the vote.

What this means for party politics in this county is hard to say. Of course we need a vigorous Democratic opposition to the dominant GOP. But we also need to poke and provoke the myriad factions WITHIN the GOP if we're ever going to have a voice. Fortunately, there ARE major divisions within the Blount County GOP. I roughly categorize them as: Lincoln/Rockefeller Republicans (would be Democrats elsewhere), developer/big business Republicans, paranoid libertarian Republicans, Christian conservative Republicans, apolitical Republicans who vote that way (if at all) because that's what their families have always done. Take any significant issue facing the county and you will see major divisions within the GOP. As progressives it's important that we learn and perfect the art of "divide and conquer."

rikki's picture

As progressives it's

As progressives it's important that we learn and perfect the art of "divide and conquer."

That's exactly why I wonder whether forming a party not labeled "Democrat" might create enough of an opening for some of the factions you listed to break ranks with the GOP.

bizgrrl's picture

Thanks for the post. There

Thanks for the post. There does need to be thought as to what can be done to get Blount Countians to progress past the 20th, if not the 19th, century. Having lived here for ten years, one way I see something happening is to appear to be a liberal/progressive Republican. They just don't like Democrats around here. Another way is to import more people not from around here.

Pedigree's picture

"'Round here"

Being “not from around here” disqualifies a person from asking questions, much less running for office.

Marks Creek's picture

and this, my friend,

and this, my friend, clarifies the paranoia and distrust of the "outsiders" who dare to even think they can be one of "us". Same in Loudoun County, Roane County, Rhea or Knox Counties. These hills breed their own and try as you might, YOU will never be one of 'um! There are more of us than there are of locals. Never forget the difference in a Democrat and a Republican. It is so basic. Educated vs. Ignorant.

rikki's picture

Educated vs.

Educated vs. Ignorant.

Exactly the sort of rhetoric it would be lovely to do away with. Having just two parties encourages this sort of polarization.

Hank's picture

It's like those lyrics in the

It's like those lyrics in the John Prine song, "Voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war."

Bbeanster's picture

Grandpa was a Carpenter

Grandpa was a Carpenter


I've written about that song here in connection with my Grandaddy Bean, whose father fought for the Union and who was the purest Lincoln Republican you'd ever have had the privilege of meeting.

R. Neal's picture

Good post. Ties in with what

Good post. Ties in with what Rikki was saying about third-parties. I like that idea. Or maybe non-partisan local elections for county and municipal offices.

Regarding the categories of Blount Republicans, maybe another one is "budget watchdogs" (a/k/a "low tax"). Jim Folts comes to mind. For a while he seemed to be popular with local Dems, and there was some common ground on the Sheriff's office, spending, waste, and possible abuse. Then he ran as a Republican for county commission unopposed. Not sure what that means, but I'm always wary of "infiltrators."

As for the third-party solution, Howard Kerr was a good example. He ran as an independent, but stood in our house and told us he was the only "real" Republican on the ticket. I voted for him anyway, because if you look at his positions he's pretty progressive for East TN on a lot of issues. But the local GOP apparatus apparently doesn't like him.

I'm not sure how the mechanics of "divide and conquer" would work.

Mello's picture

a closer look

Folts did not really run unopposed. He challenged the GOP incumbent in the primary and won. The fact that he did not have a Democratic challenger for the general election goes to issue of how hard it is to get D's to run down in Blunt Kounty.

Well, not really because Jim had and continues to have local dem supporters.

Did you notice that there were no third party candidates in the commission races where there was a Dem candidate?

The largest voting block in Blount County consists of County Employees and their families.

R. Neal's picture

He challenged the GOP

He challenged the GOP incumbent in the primary and won.

True. I imagine cross-over voting helped him and Mitchell both in the primary.

local_yokel's picture


Elrod, this is a great post. I have always heard that Blount County was a Union enclave within the state of Tennessee, and thus Republican. But, what do you make of the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the party make-up of Blount County? Much of the South switched party horses at that time. Did it make a difference in Blount County?

Mykhailo's picture

what do you make of the

what do you make of the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the party make-up of Blount County? Much of the South switched party horses at that time. Did it make a difference in Blount County?

In 1964, apparently yes. 1968-1980, no. (excepting 1972, which doesn't count).


The big break came in the 1980s, when the voting pattern in this country stopped tending towards The South vs. Everyone Else, and turned into The Cities Where the Large Majority of American Live vs. Vast Areas with Relatively Low Population Density. (Although, of course, Blount County never changed party affiliation per se, but instead started voting more in line with the newly Republican south).

Elrod's picture

Great maps

Any way to see county level data with percentages? I wonder if a Democrat running for President ever got more than 35% in Blount County.

Elrod's picture

Not much change

Much of the South started trending toward the GOP after the Civil Rights Act. East TN was already there. Note that the two GOP East TN Congressmen opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 along with the entire Southern Democratic caucus.

Mykhailo's picture

[as an aside, it's sort of

[as an aside, it's sort of interesting how the Appalachian parts of NW Georgia & N. Alabama voted 'Southern' in the mid- to late- 19th century, but became comparatively non-Democratic for about 50 years from 1900 to the end of WWII, then switched back to 'Southern' after that period. Not quite sure what explains that.)

bill young's picture


Could of been Victor Ashe..but not sure..but somebody said..Goldwater's problem around here was his threat to sell TVA.

knoxvegas99's picture

Just another aside, but it's

Just another aside, but it's worthy of note that a Civil War era Republican, or for that matter a Reconstruction era Republican, was an entirely different species than that which characterizes the party today. (In fact, we might even take that argument right up to 1948, albeit less emphatically.)


vernon's picture

Bewildered,bewildered, you

Bewildered,bewildered, you have no complaint,
you are what you are,and you aint what you ain't
So listen up buster and listen up good
stop wishin for bad luck and knocken on wood

cooperhawk's picture

Divide & deceive

As progressives it's important that we learn and perfect the art of "divide and conquer.

That's exactly why I wonder whether forming a party not labeled "Democrat" might create enough of an opening for some of the factions you listed to break ranks with the GOP.

So if I understand this right, people in Blount County are too stupid to like any progressive ideas so the next best thing is too get them to hate each other & then lie to them about who you are? Hey, why not? It worked in the presidential election.

rikki's picture

No, the idea is to define a

No, the idea is to define a platform that is relevant to local government and leave behind the divisiveness that comes with national issues and parties. You know, so that content-free, label-based disparagement loses traction.

cooperhawk's picture



Marks Creek's picture

That clearly defines who you

That clearly defines who you are, Hawk.

bill young's picture

"Voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war."

Is one of the coolest lyrics..ever!

But,IMO,"Voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war." is no longer true.

Because the Party formerly known as the Party of Lincoln..
has become the Party of Reagan.

Goldwater's run for president,in '64,was the first step
in the 30 year march of Reagan replacing Lincoln as the icon
of the Republican Party.

In '66 Reagan was elected governor of California.
Was re-elected in '70.

Ran for president in '68,'76,'80 & '84.

From the time Reagan gave his Goldwater tv speech,in '64,till he left the presidency,in January of '89;Reagan Republicanism spread like kudzu.

The '94 Republican Revolution was the nail in the coffin
for Prine's lyric "Voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war."

'Cause Lincoln was out & Reagan was in.

The Republicans were,as of '94,the Party of Reagan.

Reagan Republicanism's roots,in the south,were the Dixiecrat Neo-Republicans that supported Goldwater in '64.

All over south,led by the king of the Dixiecrats,Strom Thurmond,good ole boy Democrats switched to the Republican Party.

And those good ole southern boys didn't cotton to belonging to a Party's whose theme was:"Voted Republican 'cause Lincoln won the war."!

The first campaign I volunteered for was Hal Suit's 1970 run for governor,down in Georgia.

Suit was the news director of WSB-TV in Atlanta.
Had a Sunday show called "Hal Suit..Insight."

Suit was a Chamber of Commerce Republican.

Our opponent for the Republican nomination was Jimmy Bentley,
been elected to one of the statewide offices,a few times.

Bentley was one of those good ole boy Democrats that
had switched Parties.

No way Suit,this hot shot tv boy from Atlanta,could win over Bentley,a fellow that had been winning campaigns for a decade.

In the first Republican Primary for governor of Georgia,
Suit defeated Bentley.

I don't think a Chamber of Commerce candidate,like Suit,has won a Republican Primary in Georgia since then.

I digress.

In Middle & West Tennessee the roots of Republicanism
are grounded in the Dixiecrat Neo-Republicans of Goldwater '64.

However,here in our neck of the woods,the roots of Republicanism are grounded in ole Honest Abe.

In my lifetime,I believe,Ike & Jerry Ford were the presidents
that best reflected the ideals of East Tennessee Republicanism.

If one watches the spinners of poltical webs on the tv & radio..the
Republican Party is the Party of Reagan.

That maybe true.

But in our neck of the woods,East Tennessee,the Party of
Lincoln is still alive & well.

The modern Tennessee Republican Party started with Howard Baker's run for US Senate in '64.

He lost that one but in'66 ran again.

And unlike many southern states,who elected Dixiecrat Republicans...

In '66,Baker was elected as a birthrite Lincoln Republican.

Alexander & Corker are examples of East Tennessee Republicans
that have carried Baker's torch.

I have tried to defeat Republicans,of all stripes.

But I've always believed East Tennessee Lincoln Republicans
are honorable,decent folks.

"Voted Republican 'cause Lincoln won the war."

Still rings true in the hills of East Tennessee.

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