Democrats plot new course forward after more painful losses
NASHVILLE — So where do Tennessee Democrats go now?
Hoping to catch the “blue wave” in this year’s national midterm elections, Democrats here mounted their most credible efforts in years to win a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion, as well as make gains against Republicans in the General Assembly.
Instead, their effort in the Senate race to capitalize on discontent among moderate Republicans and conservative independents over President Donald Trump’s style and policies crashed into what now Republican U.S. Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn dubbed during her epic battle with Democrat and former governor Phil Bredesen as the “great red wall.”
As a result, Blackburn became the first hard-right Republican to win statewide office since the 1970 election of Republican Bill Brock to the Senate as she beat Bredesen by nearly 11 points for the seat left open by the retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, GOP political newcomer Bill Lee, who largely avoided divisive rhetoric, trounced Democrat and former Nashville mayor Karl Dean by nearly 21 points.
Despite a big effort, Democrats only managed to eke out a gain of one seat in the state House and none in the state Senate, although they did put a Memphis area suburban Republican senator in fear of his political future.
The end result was the GOP state House super majority went from 74 seats down to 73, with Democrats holding 26 seats instead of 25. The Senate GOP super majority remains at 28 to Democrats’ five members.
“It’s mostly bad news for Democrats in Tennessee and certainly at the statewide level,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “It’s going to be a long time, unless there are just some unforeseen changes, before Democrats can compete statewide in Tennessee.”
In a state that Trump carried two years ago by 26 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Syler called the “national Democratic brand simply toxic with a large percentage of Tennessee voters.” Bredesen himself said as much in a pre-election interview with MSNBC, noting national Democrats’ “brand” with voters here is hurting.
Until that’s “corrected,” Syler said, it is “going to put any statewide Democratic candidate at a huge disadvantage. And it is most manifested in the rural areas and in a lot of what for many, many years were Democratic counties.”
During his campaign, Bredesen pointed to his record as governor, saying he would serve as a pragmatic centrist and support or oppose Trump depending on how his policies impacted Tennesseans.
But he became engulfed in several national issues including Trump’s attacks on illegal immigration and the caravan of Central American migrants making their way to the U.S., as well as the president’s demands for a physical wall on the U.S. southern border and the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination.
“The political class was quick to underestimate Marsha’s chances of defeating Bredesen,” Blackburn’s chief strategist, Ward Baker, wrote in a post-election memo. “The media mocked us. Some operatives within our own party were pessimistic — and a few in the state even worked against us.”
But Baker said that “once we put our foot on the gas pedal, we never let up and kept Bredesen in a corner.”
Which is where state Democrats are yet again.
Syler said the “good news for Democrats is you’re starting to see some opportunities in Knox County, Hamilton County. And look at Montgomery and Rutherford — in some of these larger suburban counties they’re doing better.”
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said Bredesen and Dean “got clobbered in rural counties.”
“I don’t know what you do about that,” Oppenheimer said. “My sense is you don’t change the politics in Tennessee in a single decade.”
So what should Democrats — who haven’t won a statewide race since Bredesen’s 2006 re-election to a second term as governor and a Senate contest since Al Gore’s 1990 re-election and where seven of the nine congressmen are Republicans — do?
“Run races for school boards and mayors and try to build up the people who can be more competitive for state legislative races,” said Oppenheimer.
Syler said Democrats should “very strategically pick their battles” in local and state legislative races, adding, “I think that’s the only option they have. And to remain relevant is not a bad strategy. You do start to build a bench of potential candidates if statewide or congressional district opportunities open up.”
“It takes time,” said Oppenheimer. “Just like the Republicans. They didn’t win control in one election.”
In last week’s election, Blackburn won 92 of 95 counties while Bredesen overwhelmingly won the two largest counties, Davidson and Shelby, as well as tiny Haywood County in West Tennessee, which has a substantial black population. Dean won the same counties.
Still, Bredesen came tantalizingly close in some larger Republican strongholds, including Hamilton County, where there are a number of Republican pro-business moderates who aren’t quite as excited about issues like illegal immigration. Blackburn’s victory margin in Hamilton was a narrow 1.5 percent.
The county is also home to Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor and friend of Bredesen. Corker, who has publicly feuded with Trump, stated he would not campaign against Bredesen.
Bredesen almost painted the county “blue” last Tuesday. But Blackburn, aided by a last-minute rally by President Donald Trump two days before the election, eked out a 50.24 percent to 48.69 percent victory over Bredesen.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Khristy Wilkinson said party volunteers had “knocked on thousands of doors and I think we had a good candidate.
“I think it also helped that we had state House candidates on the ballot in every contest for the first time since 1990. Democrats had people to vote for in those races,” Wilkinson added.
She noted that in state House District 30, Democrat Joda Thongnopnua mounted the first serious bid since the 1990s, raising money and campaigning aggressively. While Republican Esther Helton won with 57.13 percent in the open district, which includes East Ridge and parts of Brainerd and East Brainerd, Thongnopnua garnered 40.5 percent of the vote.
Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Marsha Yessick said Helton’s bitter GOP primary battle may have hurt her to some extent, but she doesn’t see the contest as any portent of future Democratic success in the county.
Wilkinson, meanwhile, also pointed to local Democrats winning a new seat against an incumbent Republican county commissioner for the first time in years, increasing their membership on the nine-member panel from two to three commissioners. Yessick said it was a regrettable loss but attributable to a less than wellrun campaign.
Regarding Tennessee Democrats’ future, state party chair Mary Mancini noted that “obviously we didn’t win statewide. But for the first time in 22 years, there are more Democrats in the state legislature after an election than the day before.”
And in terms of “energy,” the party is “closing margins” in several congressional and legislative contests, she said, noting in some cases that’s been by “double digits.”
As for focusing on local and legislative contests, Mancini said “I think that’s something we recognized four years ago, us along with our partners, and county parties have been making that exact point.”
“The point is how do you rebuild,” she said. “You rebuild by having candidates, you rebuild by having the bench. [Having] folks on the ballot that did something.”
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden was amused, noting Republicans have focused on those local and legislative contests as they successfully chipped away at Democratic dominance in contests ranging from county commissioner up.
“This is something the Republican Party saw years ago,” he said, later adding, “we grew the party from the ground up.”
The party more recently has been working on changing what had been nonpartisan posts in some counties for posts like mayor into partisan contests. Nine new Republicans were elected in county general election contests in August, albeit some were already held by incumbents who declared they were Republican.
Democrats will “have a fight going forward,” Golden promised. “But the second problem they’re going to have is not the ‘micro’ but the ‘macro.’ The Washington policies particularly over the last decade have put the Democrat Party outside of the mainstream of Tennessee voters. And voters punish them at the polls at all levels, from the county commission to the U.S. Senate and governor, voters in Tennessee rejected nationally what the Democrats stand for.”
“Going forward we are going to have a presidential election [in 2020] where we watch more and more what the policies nationally are” and Republicans will hit Democrats with that at the local level.
“Absolutely, ultimately the labels are the brand name giving insight to the voters as to what your core values are,” Golden added.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.