TN Dems dis­ap­pointed again af­ter elec­tion

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Joey Gar­ri­son Nashville Ten­nessean USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

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, jgar­ri­son@ten­nessean.com and on Twit­ter @joey­gar­ri­son.

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