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Could Ex-NASCAR Star Waltrip Rev Up Congress Bid?

First of two parts

If you go by actuarial tables alone, there isn’t likely to be much turnover in the Tennessee Congressional delegation any time soon. [IMGCAP(1)]

Of the Volunteer State’s nine House Members, the oldest is Rep. Lincoln Davis (D), who is only 63. The youngest, at age 47, also is a Davis — freshman Rep. David Davis (R), no relation.

Add to that the impressive fact that no Tennessee House Member has lost a re-election contest since the 1970s, and these nine Members look like they should be able to hold their seats for as long as they want to. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), who is up for re-election in 2008, also appears to be a shoo-in for a second term at this point.

But you never know when a vacancy can occur, and the delegation could be more apt to change than it first appears.

In 2006, there were open-seat House contests at either end of the state. In each case, a five-term incumbent was stepping down — former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, and Rep. Bill Jenkins (R) decided to retire. And in each case, a runner-up to the departing incumbent in the party primary a decade before prevailed this time: David Davis finished fourth to Jenkins in the East Tennessee 1st district in 1996, and now-Rep. Steve Cohen (D) was a distant second to Ford that year in the Memphis-based 9th district.

While such perfect symmetry is not likely to occur again, a few also-rans in recent Congressional elections are still players in Tennessee politics and may be factors in House races before too long.

Some Members of the state delegation may be ready to move on sooner rather than later, creating opportunities for ambitious pols to move up. And National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has vowed to target House seats represented by Democrats that President Bush carried in the previous two presidential elections. In Tennessee, there are two of those districts: Lincoln Davis’ 4th, and Rep. Bart Gordon’s (D) 6th. The 8th district of Rep. John Tanner (D) went for native son Al Gore in 2000 but preferred Bush in 2004.

Although Democrats still hold a 5-4 edge in the House delegation, the state as a whole has trended decidedly Republican since Gore was elected vice president in 1992, and that could give the GOP an advantage when it comes to Congressional vacancies.

“We have a strong bench in Tennessee,” said state GOP Chairman Bob Davis. “It’s something a lot of people worked hard at all these years. Twenty years ago, you probably wouldn’t have said that.”

So where could the vacancies come?

Lincoln Davis, whose margin of victory has increased in each of his three elections, is seen as a possible gubernatorial candidate for 2010, when incumbent Phil Bredesen (D) will be term-limited. His agricultural Middle Tennessee district would surely be a battleground for the two parties whenever he moved on.

One potential celebrity Republican candidate is three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip. Also mentioned is Cumberland County Mayor Brock Hill (R), who briefly sought the GOP nomination in 2004 but pulled out of the race before the primary. Hill recently ran afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union when an anonymous citizen put a chain-saw-carved wooden statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments outside the county courthouse, and county officials have kept it there for several months.

Two Republicans, Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Zach Wamp, are unabashedly ambitious, and political insiders would not be surprised to see either run for higher office at some point — though how soon there will be an appropriate vacancy is an open question, what with Alexander and freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R) ensconced in the Senate and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) expressing an interest in running for governor in 2010. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam (R), a wealthy businessman who is close to Corker, also is eyeing the gubernatorial race.

“People mention Marsha and Zach Wamp, but he’s going to be the Republican governor nominee if Frist doesn’t run,” a state GOP insider predicted.

If Blackburn moves on, her district east of Memphis would likely remain in Republican hands. Potential candidates include U.S. Attorney David Kustoff (R), who was the runner-up to Blackburn in the 2002 GOP primary, and state Rep. Brian Kelsey (R), who is just 29. A possible Democratic candidate is state Sen. Rosalind Kurita, who ran briefly for the 2006 Democratic Senate nomination before deferring to Ford.

Wamp’s Chattanooga-area district is another Republican stronghold. A Republican superstar there is Tennessee GOP Vice Chairwoman Robin Smith.

While no one is suggesting that it is imminent, some state political insiders believe that 10-term Rep. John Duncan (R), who is 59, may be close to retirement, particularly with the Democrats now in control of Congress. Possible candidates for his heavily Republican Knoxville-area district include Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale (R) and Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr. (R).

State Republicans are also high on new Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R), who, through a vote of the state Senate earlier this month, became the first Republican lieutenant governor of Tennessee since Reconstruction, ousting 36-year Democratic incumbent John Wilder in the process.

Ramsey, 52, lives in David Davis’ Congressional district, where there isn’t likely to be a vacancy for some time. But he could be a factor in other political calculations down the line.

NEXT WEEK: Democratic rising stars