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Mr. Summerville Goes to Nashville

Even in this year of the Republican rout, the idea that a political nobody would unseat one of the state’s most prominent conservative rural Democrats would’ve seemed pretty far-fetched on election eve.

But Senator-elect Jim Summerville is a nobody no more. He pulled off what was arguably the biggest upset of the 2010 elections in Tennessee, knocking off Dickson Democratic state Sen. Doug Jackson by just under 1,000 votes.

Perhaps even more surprising is that to Summerville the outcome wasn’t all that big a surprise — although he did cop to being “kind of stunned” when he woke up last Wednesday.

In fact, though, the handwriting was on the wall after the Aug. 5 primary for all who cared to deconstruct it, said Summerville, an Austin Peay State University English instructor. Once all the primary election votes were tallied — 13,735 for Summerville, 12,542 for Jackson — he  started suspecting in earnest that his odds of winning weren’t as long as conventional wisdom would have put them.

In the following months, he ran a $2,400 campaign — compared to the incumbent senator who spent $13,000 in that same period of time, but ultimately headed into election day with $28,500 still in the bank.

Final score on Nov. 2: Summerville  21,436 votes, Jackson 20,528 — 51 percent to 49 percent.

But not only did Summerville catch his Democratic opponent flat-footed, the Republican Party didn’t take his chances of winning seriously, said Summerville, who emphasizes that he sees himself as a “citizen legislator” and regards the tea-party movement as a base of support.

“I do know that the (Republican) party apparatus did not work to recruit me and looked kind of askance at me, as like ‘Who are you?’” Summerville told TNReport at the Capitol in Nashville on Tuesday.

Republicans failed to realize the district’s potential for change, he said — and probably for good reason. “Sen. Jackson remains a popular man,” said Summerville. “He represented the district for a long time. Lots of friends, lots of contacts, lots of people, so I had an uphill fight, no question about it, but I could see it was doable.”