What now?

Democrats plot new course for­ward af­ter more painful losses

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANDY SHER

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.

GO­ING LO­CAL?

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 asher@times­freep­ress.com or 615-255-0550. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @AndySher1.

Karl Dean

Phil Bre­desen

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