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As Tennessee voters take the stage for Act 2 of the 2014 election trilogy, perhaps the biggest question is: Can a red state get even redder?

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to cruise to a second term this fall without serious Democratic competition. If incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander withstands state Rep. Joe Carr's tea party challenge in the GOP primary Thursday, he'll probably make it tough for the Democratic nominee to get much traction in November, political analysts say.

The other seats in the state's congressional delegation probably won't change parties either. Democrats could actually lose ground in the state Senate, where they held just seven of 33 seats to begin with, prompting one Democratic contender to crack that they could hold caucus meetings in a minivan. And Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and a slew of interest groups hope to persuade voters to throw out three Tennessee Supreme Court justices appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

Even one of the nation's most embattled Republican congressmen, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg, might manage to hang on against a credible primary challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy, if conservative voters consider present-day positions more than past indiscretions.

Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University and former Democratic political operative, said his party will struggle in Tennessee as long as President Barack Obama remains in the Oval Office.

He noted that Tennessee was one of the few states to support Obama's 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, more than it supported President George W. Bush's re-election bid four years earlier. Obama easily defeated McCain nationally as voters called for change in the White House, but Tennessee marched to a different beat — and hasn't stopped.

Republican campaigners are using "a formula that's worked since 2010: You simply take a picture of your opponent, put a picture of Barack Obama next to him and maybe throw in Nancy Pelosi, and go with it," Syler said. "As long as that keeps working, that's what we'll keep seeing. I honestly can't see any reason it would stop working in 2014."

But Roy Herron, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said he sees an opening for the party's eventual Senate nominee this fall, whether the opponent is Alexander, whom Herron has taken to labeling as a government employee for parts of five decades, or Carr, whose conservative stances place him to the right of many Tennesseans.

Not tea party types

John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said Tennessee isn't quite as red as it might appear. The three statewide officeholders — Haslam, Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who doesn't face re-election until 2018 — are conservatives, but they're not tea party types.

"They're much more out of the Howard Baker mold than they are Ted Cruz," Geer said, referring to the legendary, consensus-building Tennessee statesman who died in June and the freshman Texas senator at the forefront of the tea party movement.

Geer said Democrats have their own potentially viable statewide candidates, such as Bredesen and the Nashville and Chattanooga mayors, Karl Dean and Andy Berke. But they've opted to sit this year out, wary of Haslam's strong poll numbers and Alexander's formidable standing.

Democrats should at least have a better Senate contender than they did in 2012, when the extremist views of previously unknown nominee Mark Clayton made the state party a national punch line. Terry Adams and Gordon Ball, two Knoxville attorneys, seem to be the leading candidates for the nomination. But while Herron says the party will compete in November, Geer said he doesn't expect Adams or Ball to give Alexander much of a fight, assuming Alexander prevails over Carr.

"It's going to be an uninteresting fall election," Geer said.

An urban base

Democrats do have pockets of strength in the state, notably Nashville and Memphis. The two cities' congressmen, Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen, are expected to return to Washington for another term.

Maynard and his associates are trying to make sure the Democratic candidates — some black, some white, some incumbents, some newcomers — get over the last hurdle to public service.

"We've called thousands and thousands of voters," he said. "We're telling people that the May election was great, but it was not the final election."

Herron said he thinks all of the Davidson County Democrats will win. But if Republicans manage to capture one or more of those judgeships, that could send another loud signal that the GOP is pushing further into traditionally Democratic territory.

An imbalance outside Nashville

Ballots in the counties around Nashville have already turned bright crimson. In Sumner County, for example, the candidates for local offices are almost all Republicans or independents. A group of Sumner parents who mobilized in anger after school didn't start on time a couple of years ago has thrown its support behind Yvonne Malone, the lone Democrat seeking a seat on the county commission. But she'll have to overcome the county's entrenched impulse to reflexively vote Republican.

The same imbalance prevails in heavily Republican Rutherford County, which is part of the 4th Congressional District, where DesJarlais hopes to overcome Tracy's challenge. Syler said Tracy needs to win by a large margin in Rutherford and the other westernmost counties of the district, which sprawls to the Chattanooga suburbs.

Until recently, it seemed unlikely that DesJarlais could win a third term. Divorce filings released in 2012 — the full details of which didn't become public until after DesJarlais had been re-elected — include statements that he supported two abortions by his former wife before their marriage and had affairs with patients before the divorce was finalized in 2001.

If that doesn't sink a Republican family values candidate, what would? Syler said that if DesJarlais wins, it will be a symptom of the nation's political polarization. In that kind of environment, "a lot of other things get overlooked," he said, and many Republican voters will say, "Well, he votes the way I want him to vote."

With DesJarlais' staunchly conservative voting record and his personal issues already "well aired," coming up with the right message has been a challenge for Tracy, Syler said.

"If it becomes a referendum on who's the most conservative, that's a tough one to win. Senator Tracy needs a lot of moderate Republicans from the western part of the district and a lot of Democrats who are willing to cross over and vote in the Republican primary."

Whether DesJarlais or Tracy wins, Herron said, Democrats will compete for the congressional seat this fall with their candidate, retired accountant Lenda Sherrell of Monteagle. But it's hard not to think the minority party is hoping to see DesJarlais again in November.

"There's a strong contrast between (Sherrell's) ethics and morals and the incumbent's," Herron said.

Geer said his best guess is that Tracy will come out ahead Thursday night. If DesJarlais wins, "it's going to be a testament to a low-turnout election where people are happy with his positions on the issues and they're willing to forgive him."

And it might be one more testament to just how red Tennessee has become.

Bellwether races

• U.S. Senate Republican primary: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander vs. state Rep. Joe Carr and other challengers.

• 4th Congressional District Republican primary: U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais vs. state Sen. Jim Tracy and other challengers.

• Retention elections for Tennessee Supreme Court justices Cornelia A. (Connie) Clark, Sharon Gail Lee and Gary R. Wade. Voters will decide whether each of the three justices, all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, will be retained or replaced.

• If any of four Republican judicial candidates wins in Davidson County (a fifth stopped campaigning and endorsed his Democratic opponent), the GOP will gain ground in the heavily Democratic county.

• Davidson County clerk: Toni Eaton, Republican, vs. incumbent Brenda P. Wynn, Democrat

• Sumner County Commission, District 6: Voters choose two of the following three candidates: Republican Kevin T. Pomeroy, Republican Jim Vaughn and Democrat Yvonne Malone

Republicans' rise

Presidential elections since 1976 — when Democrat Jimmy Carter won Tennessee with nearly 56 percent of the vote — show Republicans' increasing strength in numbers in the state:

Year

Republican nominee

Tennessee votes

Outcome in state

1976

Gerald Ford

633,969

Lost

1980

Ronald Reagan

787,761

Won

1984

Ronald Reagan

990,212

Won

1988

George H.W. Bush

947,233

Won

1992

George H.W. Bush

841,300

Lost

1996

Bob Dole

863,530

Lost

2000

George W. Bush

1,061,949

Won

2004

George W. Bush

1,383,336

Won

2008

John McCain

1,479,178

Won

2012

Mitt Romney

1,462,330

Won

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