TN Dems disappointed again after election
NASHVILLE – This isn’t an obituary of the Tennessee Democratic Party. That story has been written before.
But after a decade of struggles, Tennessee Democrats had high hopes that this election would be different after fielding the party’s most serious contenders for U.S. Senate and governor in a dozen years.
Both candidates, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, entered as moderates with popular records in elected office and personal money to spend on their campaigns.
Some observers proclaimed that if Bredesen couldn’t win in Tennessee no Democrat could.
But when the dust settled Tuesday night, the outcome produced the same bottom-line result as recent cycles. Republican Bill Lee blew out Dean 60 percent to 39 percent in the race for governor and Marsha Blackburn soundly defeated Phil Bredesen 55 percent to 44 percent to win retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s seat. Party chair weighing future Yet again Democrats, who won big in Memphis and Nashville, got crushed in
the state’s rural counties and small towns, regardless of region, exposing an ongoing urban-rural cultural divide that still defines the politics of Tennessee and much of the rest of the country.
The party’s decline comes as Republicans have continued to stress a social conservative platform — guns, border security and immigration — that’s resonated in areas long ago dominated by southern Democrats.
Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini — who said she will decide in the coming days whether she will run for another term in January — tried to put a positive face on events in an interview, pointing to a one-seat net pickup for Democrats in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Although Republicans retained super-majorities in both state chambers, she said Democratic candidates for House and Senate across the state outperformed previous Democratic performances even if they lost.
“We’re still in a rebuilding phase,” Mancini said. “It’s just going to take a while. We have to keep at it.
“Tennessee Democrats ran the largest grassroots campaign we’ve had in years, in decades, and we narrowed the margins and in some cases by double digits,” she said. “For the first time in over two decades, there are more Democrats in the state legislature today than there were yesterday.”
Trump effect presented added challenge for Democrats
Complicating matters, Bredesen, Dean as well as down-ballot Democrats this year faced the political force of President Donald Trump, whose hard-line populist rhetoric continues to find a large following in rural areas.
Trump visited Tennessee three times this year to stump for Blackburn, spending his final weeks railing on wedge issues like the caravan of Central American migrants heading north through Mexico toward the U.S.
At his final rally in Chattanooga, Trump told the audience to vote for Blackburn to “stop the liberal agenda of high taxes and high crime.”
Like Tennessee, Democratic Senate candidates running in several red-leaning states that Trump carried in 2016 — Florida, Indiana, Texas, Missouri, North Dakota — each lost. Exceptions were Montana and perhaps Arizona, where the race still isn’t called.
Bredesen and Dean both improved on the 26percentage point defeat Trump handed Hillary Clinton in Tennessee in 2016.
But Tuesday might have exposed Democrats’ rural problem further, with Blackburn winning 40 Tennessee counties with at least 70 percent of the vote and Lee winning 61.
Bredesen carried many of these same counties in his 2002 run for governor and won all 95 counties during his reelection in 2006.
From the outset, Bredesen tried to avoid making the race against Trump as he campaigned for working across the aisle and against hyperpartisanship. He traveled to counties across the state, including rural areas, convinced his personal brand would shine through the party’s ailing brand.
But Blackburn, an outspoken Trump ally, successfully tied Bredesen to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and as a threat to Trump’s agenda.
A top strategist for Bredesen blamed the defeat — and inability to find any traction in rural areas — primarily on the Trump effect and the barrage of outside spending.
“Gov. Bredesen ran a respectable and, above all, respectful campaign about issues and ideas,” said longtime Democratic operative Will Pinkston, a Bredesen campaign adviser. “Unfortunately, we’re just operating in an environment in which negative attacks, unlimited outside dark money, and unbridled tribalism is trumping — both figuratively and literally — everything else. That may sound like sour grapes, but it’s the truth.”
‘Losing in regular America’
Privately some Democrats say Bredesen did too little to activate the party’s base.
Some in this camp say Democrats should start embracing a more progressive and youthful segment of the party in contrast to the “pragmatic,” anti-partisanship messaging of Bredesen and Dean. Others argue just the opposite, contending that the party’s brand has drifted from the center, alienating many voters in Tennessee.
Something needs to change, most party insiders agree, if Democrats want to compete statewide again.
“If the Titans or Predators were losing week after week, I think the fans, the supporters, of those organizations would start demanding change,” said Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, a moderate Democrat who stopped short of calling for a new party chair but added: “I think you’re wise if you are trying to win to evaluate yourself instead of always blaming everything else.
“The Democratic Party is losing in regular America, which is regular Tennessee, over and over and over again to what are I believe are less-than candidates.”
Hall pointed to the issue of immigration, which he said Republicans wrongly use as a “fear-tactic” but that Democrats “seem so afraid” to discuss. They come off as weak as result, he said.
“Now you’re a racist if you don’t say that we should just ignore all immigration laws,” Hall said. “I think that the Democratic Party is worried and wanting to go so far left that it forgets that Middle America, Middle Tennessee, the regular person in this state, isn’t there.”
Democrats ask whether it’s time for a ‘Beto’ approach over Bredesen
Democrats received the near-presidentiallevel voter turnout they needed in Shelby and Davidson counties to compete statewide, but it wasn’t enough to match the enthusiasm in conservative areas.
A small bright-side for Democrats was better numbers than Clinton in some of Nashville’s suburbs — Rutherford County and Montgomery County — where Bredesen received 46 percent and 48 percent of the vote, respectively.
But Holly McCall, the chairwoman of the Williamson County Democratic Party, where Bredesen finished with 40 percent of the vote, said Tennessee voters were too “locked in” to their party identifications to make further gains.
“I don’t think any (Democrat) could have won that seat,” McCall said, referring to the Senate election, adding it’s easy to armchair-quarterback. “For somebody like Phil Bredesen, who many Republicans say they respect, say they like — but they clearly didn’t vote for him.”
Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis House member elected Tuesday to the state Senate, expressed concerns that the victories of Blackburn and Lee veered the state’s leadership toward the far right after a tradition of more moderate leadership.
“You look at the postObama years in the South, and it looks like Tennessee is going along with our counterparts in Mississippi and Kentucky, which is a little disheartening to me,” Akbari said.
To reach new voters, Akbari said it’s important Democrats find areas of agreement on issues such as criminal justice, strong public schools, and economic growth — but without compromising Democratic principles.
“If you’re going to sound just like a Republican but be a Democrat, they’re going to just vote for a Republican,” she said.
“Why vote for a Democratic that sounds like a Republican when you can vote for a Republican?” she said.
Akbari didn’t question the moderate strategy of Bredesen, although she did say his support of Trump’s Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh irked some on the left. Still, she wondered whether a more progressive candidate could mount a better effort moving forward.
“You wonder can Tennessee can be successful with an approach like Beto (O’Rourke), or Stacey Abrams, or (Andrew) Gillum, as opposed to someone who is running as a centrist,” she said.
Each narrowly lost running statewide in traditionally conservative Texas, Georgia and Florida, respectively, although Abrams has not yet conceded. “The Bredesen approach has worked forever — saying hey I want to put people first not politics and partisanship first — and then obviously that didn’t matter,” she said. “Someone who is hyper-partisan, to the point of that’s all that I really know that she represents, is now going to be our next senator.”
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @joeygarrison.