Interestingly, the GOP-controlled seat that gave Trump his smallest margin was the one that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1852, before the Republican Party was even founded, though it was still far from close: Rep. Tim Burchett’s 2nd District around Knoxville supported Trump 64-34, which was just a tick down from his 65-30 performance against Hillary Clinton.
At the heart of the 2nd District is Knox County, which has in fact been represented by a member of the nativist Know Nothing Party more recently than a Democrat, with William Henry Sneed taking it during President Franklin Pierce’s 1854 midterm. Sneed was replaced two years later by fellow Know Nothing Horace Maynard, who, like many anti-secession politicians in the years before and during the Civil War, identified with a number of different political labels.
Sneed’s East Tennessee base remained loyal to the Union during the conflict, though he temporarily left Congress in 1863 when he was appointed state attorney general by military governor Andrew Johnson. Sneed returned in 1866 when Tennessee was readmitted to the Union after Johnson was elevated to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, this time as a full-fledged member of the Republican Party.
After the federal government abandoned Reconstruction, however, Republicans throughout the South quickly found themselves with little influence. Knox County, though, remained a durable exception: The GOP continued to represent the area in Congress during the entire era of Democratic dominance known as the “Solid South,” and it remained in power as the rest of Tennessee and neighboring states began their broader migration toward the Republican Party in the wake of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”
Democrats hung on in Tennessee longer than in other corners of the South, but those days are long gone. Republicans gained control of the redistricting in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, and they’ll once again decide the new congressional map.