Deep South Remains a Republican Stronghold

Campaign signs line a street in Chattanooga on Tuesday. (Daniel Jackson/CNS)

(CN) — As Tennessee elected its first female U.S. senator, voters in Alabama added anti-abortion language to the state constitution, and in Louisiana, voters struck down a judicial rule formed during the Jim Crow era.

Election Day in the Deep South began with early morning storms rolling up through Alabama into Tennessee. The National Weather Service reported that three tornadoes touched down before voters headed to the polls.

Republican Marsha Blackburn won the contentious race for U.S. Senate in Tennessee, running on a promise to help confirm “constitutional, constructionist judges.” She defeated former Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

The Associated Press called the election for Blackburn at 9:06 p.m. local time, dashing Democrats’ hope that the blue wave might erode the Republican stronghold in Tennessee.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the AP had Blackburn leading Bredesen by 54.7 percent to 43.9.

Blackburn will fill the seat Republican Sen. Bob Corker set into play when he declined to seek re-election. The former congresswoman from western Tennessee took to the stage Tuesday night to thank her supporters.

“(Tennesseans) want leaders who are going to tackle the big problems,” Blackburn said. “And they want leaders who are going to be there to work with the president and keep this nation on the path to prosperity that we are on today.”

As Blackburn concluded, a musician lay down a banjo roll and the band struck up “Rocky Top,” one of Tennessee’s 10 official state songs.

Blackburn ran on a platform promising to support President Trump’s agenda, in a state where more than 60 percent of voters backed him in 2016.

Trump visited the Volunteer State twice to stump for Blackburn, most recently at a Sunday evening rally in Chattanooga.

For much of the campaign, polls showed Bredesen in a statistical tie, but later polls showed Blackburn pulling away.

The governor’s mansion, left open by retiring Gov. Bill Haslam, will be filled by Republican businessman Bill Lee, whose race was called by the AP less than 45 minutes after polls closed in the state.

Voting at the Maryville Municipal Building was steady Tuesday morning, but a power outage of a handicapped-accessible electronic voting machine caused the other three machines at the precinct to go down.

“Oh my. It’s all I can say, is oh my,” said Susan Hughes, Blount County’s administrator of elections. “We had a bad unit here that when you plug it in with all the other ones, all the other ones went black.”

The machines at the polling place to the south of Knoxville went down about 8:30 a.m. and electronic voting recommenced about 10:15 a.m. when the other three machines were fixed.

Some voters made their choices on paper ballots and others decided to come back and vote.

At the Maryville Municipal Building, Vivian Kempfer voted for Republican candidates Lee and Blackburn.

“I like him; he’s a dairy farmer,” Kempfer said of Lee. “So he knows the heartaches, people trying to make a living. I think he’s really educated too.”

Kempfer did not like the idea of the caravan of immigrants walking north through Mexico, in search of political asylum there or in the United States. “They’re coming for a purpose,” she said, “and it’s not to help the American people.”

Sam Harper, 18, paused outside the building so his mother, Jess Harper, could snap a photo of him holding a first-time voter certificate.

For his first ballot, Harper backed Bredesen and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean, a former mayor of Nashville. Harper said health care weighed heavily on his mind.

“Health care’s important, because I need it,” Harper said. “And I won’t be on [my parent’s] plan forever. It’s just better to have it and have to pay more taxes rather than just not have it and have to pay a lot to get private healthcare.”

According to Democratic data company TargetSmart, Tennessee saw a spike in young citizens voting early this year. In the 2014 midterm election, 12,812 voters from 18 to 29 voted early, while 97,826 cast early ballots this year – an increase of 664 percent.

At the Brainerd Community Center in Chattanooga, the signs for local politicians that lined the drive during early voting were all but gone by Election Day, leaving the signs for statewide races — some crumpled — dotting the way. A yellow sign topped with a small American flag asked voters to write in candidate Eddie Murphy for governor.

Around 10 a.m. there, three roving Democratic poll watchers ask the people leaving the polling place by ones and twos if they were able to vote. Because this place was a regional hub for early voting, several voters showed up here rather than their assigned precinct.

If not given the correct information, some of those voters could get frustrated and not cast ballots, said poll watcher Melody Shekari.

Three miles away Gwen Garvey, leaving the East Ridge Community and Senior Center, said she prayed about her ballot before voting for Blackburn. The nurse for an assisted living facility said that immigrants will make the country unsafe. “I have children, grandchildren,” she said.

Standing outside a Blackburn rally 11 days before the election in East Ridge, Barry Barsoumian said he couldn’t be happier with Trump in office. The machinist who donned an American flag bow tie for the occasion said his biggest concern was the debts the government was accumulating that were “robbing my grandkids’ future.”

Barsoumian left the Soviet Union in 1977 and a few years ago was involved with the Tea Party in the Chattanooga area. He said his biggest goal this year was to support Republicans in office.

“I feel the Democrat will be more the spending, wasteful money,” he said.

Across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the outcomes of gubernatorial and congressional races were solidly Republican. Republican incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey held onto office in Alabama with 59.6 percent of the vote to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox’s 40.4 percent.

In Alabama, the first statewide question on the ballot asked if voters want to amend the state constitution to direct the display of the Ten Commandments in public places such as schools. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the amendment passed with 71.6 percent support.

At the public library in Hoover, Ala., Carol Bloodworth was more interested in proposed Amendment Two, which would add language to the state constitution declaring that the “state does not protect the right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

Planned Parenthood and other groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars urging voters to oppose the ballot initiative. But it passed with 59 percent support.

Bloodworth, who opposed the amendment, said that she thought the issue would drive a lot of women to the ballot box.

“I’d think there’d be a lot of women who would come out to vote on that,” she said.

Daniel Sanabria, originally from Madrid, Spain, said he was not drawn by any particular issue on the ballot but took a more global approach to the vote.

“I think we need to send a different message to the world,” Sanabria said, adding that it was the first time he had voted a straight Democratic ticket.

In Louisiana, voters overwhelmingly overturned the state’s Jim Crow-era non-unanimous jury rule that was put in place in an overt attempt to support white supremacy. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State, Amendment 2 passed with 64.35 percent of the vote.

Louisiana lawmakers wrote the law to be able to nullify black jurors’ votes, allowing defendants to be convicted of crimes by a 10-2 jury vote.

Beyond the crumbling turquoise stucco façade of Eleanor McMain Secondary School and in the flower-scented hallway outside the polling booths, recently elected New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Amendment 2 was a no-brainer. The city’s first African-American woman mayor said she voted in favor of unanimous juries.

“It’s very important as a state that we are upholding justice on a national level,” she said. “We are one of two states in the nation that doesn’t use unanimous juries.”

New Orleans is 69 percent African-American.

Conservative Republican groups also backed the statewide push for unanimous juries. Louisiana Family Forum and Americans for Prosperity, for example, supported it.

So even whiter, more conservative areas of the city, such as St. Tammany Parish on the far outskirts and across Lake Pontchartrain, which boasts the most conservative voters in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it was expected that the rule would be overturned.

Advocates of the rule change worried that unfamiliarity with the amendment and confusing wording could have been enough to stump voters into voting against it.

“I find the whole thing is disorientating,” Keila Cook said after she and her two young children emerged from the ballot room, where curtains partitioned off old-style voting machines set at stations around a gymnasium.

“Between the outdated technology and the way it’s worded, I had to make a cheat sheet on index cards at home for how I was going to vote, just so I didn’t get too overwhelmed and confused,” the schoolteacher said.

(Courthouse News reporters Sabrina Canfield, John Brackin and David Klein contributed to this report.)

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