Kerry can’t win it. But can Bush lose it?

“There are three things I know about John Kerry,” says Randal Vinson. “First, that he speaks three or four languages, and one of them is French. Second, that he’s married to an ex-senator’s wife who’s worth a billion dollars. And third, he is supposedly a Vietnam vet.”

Vinson, a 56-year-old retired computer programmer, is whiling away the afternoon at Troy’s Barbershop in Huntingdon, the county seat of Carroll County in northwest Tennessee. Carroll is the bellwether county in a bellwether state: Tennessee has voted for the winner in the last 10 presidential elections, and Carroll has picked right every time. Carroll is rural, white, and struggling.

Huntingdon barber Troy Oatsvall

Vinson’s scorn shouldn’t trouble the Kerry campaign too much: He’s a lifelong Republican. But Kerry does need to worry about Tennesseans like Troy Oatsvall—the Troy of Troy’s Barbershop. Oatsvall, who’s cut hair in Huntingdon for 40 years, never voted for a Republican presidential candidate before George W. Bush. He regrets his Bush vote, just not enough to check the box for Kerry. “I don’t like what Bush has done in Iraq. I don’t think one American boy is worth that whole country. But I don’t like Kerry. Did you ever meet someone and just not like the way he looks? That’s the way I feel about Kerry. I just don’t like the way he looks.”

For three days in Tennessee, that is practically the nicest thing I hear about Kerry from a Democrat. Tennessee Democrats say Kerry wants to take their guns, that he’s more liberal than Al Gore, that they don’t know anything about him and don’t really care to, that the only reason to vote for him is that he isn’t Bush.

Tennessee, in short, does not feel like a state that John Kerry can win. The question is: Is it a state that President Bush can lose?

Despite being as Southern as all get out—the state is a bastion of Christian conservatism, the headquarters of country music, and home to a strong Republican tradition—Tennessee is not the mortal lock for Republican presidential candidates that Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina are. When the Southern Democratic monopoly collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Tennessee party didn’t disintegrate. Tennessee’s sophisticated economy and excellent universities attracted Democrat-leaning migrants. The state produced a series of talented, moderate Democratic pols, including Al Gore, former Sen. Jim Sasser, and former Gov. Ned McWherter. Today it has an exceedingly popular Democratic governor in Phil Bredesen, a Democratic state House of Representatives and state Senate, and a Democratic majority in the congressional delegation. Tennesseans lean further right in presidential elections than in local ones, but this is still a state where Democrats, at least conservative ones, compete.

A poll from four months ago—the most recent statewide poll I’ve seen—found Kerry only four points behind Bush. But so far neither campaign is treating the Volunteer State as a battleground. Bush has advertised only a teeny bit in Tennessee, Kerry not at all. Neither campaign has opened a headquarters. But Democrats are not entirely pessimistic. They sense Republican anxiety. President Bush, Laura Bush, and Vice President Cheney have all made recent campaign visits to Tennessee. Part of the reason for these trips is financial: Tennessee—with GOP-loving country music and health-care industries—may be the best Republican fund-raising state. But the trips were also political. Bush and Karl Rove wouldn’t devote valuable presidential time to Tennessee unless they felt a wee bit vulnerable. Democratic state chairman Randy Button says that with Southerner John Edwards on the ticket, Tennessee could be in play for Democrats.

Republican Party Chairwoman Beth Harwell

For the GOP, the 2004 logic is simple. Four years ago, President Bush took 11 electoral votes when he beat native son Gore by four points. Bush love-bombed the Vols, visiting like crazy, advertising even more, and raising a ton of Tennessee money. By the time Gore realized he might lose Tennessee, he had already lost it. “This state rejected hometown boy Al Gore because of his liberal voting record, and Kerry’s record is more liberal than Al Gore’s,” state Republican chairwoman Beth Harwell explains to me. Tennessee, she says, “is not a swing state.” Put another way, Tennessee is a must-win state for the president. In a close race, he can’t win re-election without it.

If Kerry is going to beat Bush in Tennessee, he’s going to have to pile up huge majorities in the western half of the state. Tennessee split in the Civil War—the east sided with the Union and Republicans, the west with the Confederacy and Democrats. Those divisions remain: Western Tennessee remains yellow-dog Democratic. (Today when Tennesseans talk about “the war,” it’s not always clear what war they are referring to, Iraq or Civil.)

State Sen. Roy Herron

I drive west from Nashville to meet State Sen. Roy Herron. Herron represents nine rural counties in the northwest corner of the state. He managed Gore’s Tennessee campaign in 2000, when Bush killed Gore by painting him as a gun opponent and a fake Tennessean. (Herron has an interesting theory about the Tennessee 2000 campaign.)

Herron, who looks quite a bit like John Edwards, is a small-town lawyer and an 18-year veteran of the Tennessee House and Senate. He’s a superb retail politician. (“No one loves a parade like Roy,” one of his constituents told me.) Before running for the Tennessee House 18 years ago, Herron was a legal aid lawyer and a Methodist minister. He exudes decency—he exclaims “sons of biscuit eaters!” when you or I might refer to a female dog—yet he also wrote a delightful, sometimes salty book of Tennessee political humor. He is an incredibly good soul and wildly popular. When I interviewed folks in his district, Republicans who ranted about Democrats and swore they would never vote for one would interrupt themselves and say things like, “I’m not counting Roy Herron, of course.”

Herron doesn’t think it’s hopeless for Kerry. He acknowledges that Kerry must overcome the handicap of Massachusetts—”not exactly seen as a sister state to Tennessee,” he says dryly. But, he notes, “There are at least three things that are different than in 2000. One, over 20 businesses in my district, for example, have had mass layoffs or closed since George W. Bush became president. Two, instead of the underlying anger at President Clinton for his misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, people are upset with the current president over a lot of issues. And three, some of us who hunt and shoot are aware that the Democratic nominee hunts and shoots.” The last is particularly critical, Herron emphasizes, because Bush killed Gore on gun issues in Tennessee.

As we drive around his district in his F-150, Herron points out troubled businesses—the 400-job factory turned into a storage facility—and tells me about the huge tobacco plant that moved to Kentucky, the ornamental-concrete plant that shut down, the other factories that closed. Local unemployment is stuck in double digits, Herron says. In nearby Huntingdon, people on the street complain that the Wal-Mart has killed the town. (I also heard a good Wal-Mart joke.) In this remote, rural part of the state, the economy favors Democrats: The only big projects around are government-funded; the population is getting older, poorer, and smaller.

But if the folks I met in Herron’s district are any guide, these issues aren’t translating into support for Kerry. Greg Lamb, who lost his job when the concrete factory shut, doesn’t blame Bush for the bad economy. He likes the president’s Christianity, and he hears that Kerry opposes guns. (When I ask Lamb what he hunts, he jokes, “Liberals.”) Karen Gardiner, a secretary at a Dresden Baptist church, downplays local economic problems. What matters are the war—which as a daughter and mother of soldiers, she supports—and moral issues like abortion and gay marriage, which she opposes. In fact, the only people I found in Herron’s hometown of Dresden who back Kerry are quintessential yellow-dogs like 90-year-old Annie Blakemore, on her way to get her blood pressure checked. “I don’t know much about that other fella [Kerry], but I have always voted Democrat. The president may be doing a bang-up job—I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I won’t vote for him.”

Herron’s up for election in November, and so is the local Democratic congressman, John Tanner. Can their popularity, or the endorsement of Tennessee’s Democratic governor, generate votes for Kerry? History is not encouraging. In 2000, Herron won 9,266 out of 9,267 votes in Weakley County—all but one vote—yet Gore still lost the county to Bush.

The other bad news for Kerry is that West Tennessee is losing muscle to the middle of the state. The political energy of the state is in Middle Tennessee, particularly the “ring” of suburban counties around Nashville. I drive 15 miles south of Nashville to Williamson County, the ground zero of Tennessee’s—and the GOP’s—boom. Twenty-five years ago, Williamson County was rural and Democratic. But Nashville white-collar workers moved out there. Country music and health care created a cadre of rich suburbanites. Williamson County’s population quadrupled from 34,000 in 1970 to 126,000 in 2000. Now it has topped 140,000. The county adds two schools a year. A massive mall, the Cool Springs Galleria, gushes sales tax revenue, allowing Williamson to repeatedly cut taxes. Real estate dealers fill developments—like “Fountainhead” and “The Manor at Steeplechase”—as fast as they can be built. Country stars such as Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw have moved in. NASCAR stud Darrell Waltrip is in Williamson as well. *

“This is Eden,” says county GOP chairman Hugh DuPree with a big grin. “It is not a big city, but it has all the amenities of a big city. There are no slums, no inner city. And we have the best schools in the state.” In Williamson, DuPree says, people hate taxes and favor the war. It’s the kind of place where you don’t make plans for Wednesday evening because that’s church night.

The county’s new residents—white, prosperous, religious, and economically conservative—are quintessential Republicans. When USA Today was looking to profile the ideal Republican community in 2002, it came to Williamson County.

I spend the morning with DuPree in the county Republican headquarters, a trim little building in the town of Franklin. Every few minutes a new volunteer drops in. Some look like Republicans, blue-haired ladies coming to stuff envelopes and polo-shirted men seeking bumper stickers for their trucks. There is also a long-haired, sandal-wearing college kid home for the summer. Williamson is so conservative that even the hippies are Republicans.

DuPree, an ex-Air Force officer and newspaper publisher, says Bush will destroy Kerry in Williamson. There’s not a single Democratic officeholder left in the county, he says gleefully. “It’s not a question of whether President Bush will win here, it’s by how much,” he says. “In 2000, Bush won the state by 80,000 thousand votes. This county—just one of 95 counties—provided a quarter of that margin. He won here by 20,000 votes.”

This time, DuPree says, Bush will win this area by even more. The ring counties have now gotten so big and so Republican that they are overcoming the huge Democratic advantage in the city of Nashville.

DuPree points me toward Brentwood, a town—or rather endless series of developments—north of Franklin. In Brentwood, the houses under construction are so big that workers look like ants on them, like a Salgado photograph. Princeton Hills, a Brentwood McMansion development, seems the perfect encapsulation of the new suburban Tennessee. At the gate of the development stands a brick frieze of a Confederate general in battle. Behind the gate, enormous mansions. Down the street, a Baptist church the size of an arena. Across the road, another field of McMansions going up, McMansions as far as the eye can see—each one another Republican vote, another $2,000 in the Bush campaign war chest.

I do find an undecided voter in Williamson County—the only one of three dozen Tennesseans I accost who hasn’t made up his mind. He is Tom Taylor. I meet him on Main Street in Franklin, right outside his law office. Taylor is a moderate Republican, he says. He voted for Bush, in part out of disgust for Clinton. “But now I am really disappointed.” Bush has dragged the party too far right, has governed poorly. Taylor is pessimistic about the country. Still, he says, “if there is any light at the end of the tunnel, if—let’s say—there is any sign someone is listening to Colin Powell, then I will vote Republican. You see, there just isn’t anything to like about John Kerry.”

Correction, July 6, 2004: The article originally claimed NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin lives in Williamson County. In fact, he lives one county over, in Maury County. ( Return to corrected sentence.)