In the most generous terms, the Tennessee Democratic Party is a fighter on the mat, just beginning to see straight after a near-knockout punch. If the arena stops spinning, they can start thinking about standing up again.
After some 150 years as the state’s dominant political party, Democrats have become a mostly marginalized minority in state politics. While party officials describe the fall as having occurred slowly over the past decade, a critical moment came in 2008. Despite Barack Obama’s historic national victory, his 15-point loss to John McCain in Tennessee bled down the ballot. Republicans, who had already seized control of the state Senate, gained four seats in the House, making Democrats a minority in both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
The trend continued in the red tide, election-night drubbing of 2010 which privileged Republicans with near supermajorities in both houses of the legislature. Democrats lost the race for governor, 14 seats in the state House and two U.S. congressional races. Predictably, Republicans flexed their newfound muscle, using the redistricting pen to further punish their opponents, just as Democrats had done to them many times before. Nowadays the new minority is hoping only to “hold the line” in the legislature and stop what has been a cataclysmic slide.
Adjusting for the political cannibalism and retirement-spree forced by the redrawn state map, Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said “the line” is now somewhere around 24 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, making Tennessee Democrats a minority almost as diminutive as, say, Northeastern Republicans. For example, the Republican minority in Massachusetts makes up 18 percent of the state’s legislature. If Democrats hold the line Forrester describes, they’ll make up just 24 percent of Tennessee’s.
The hole is deep, but Forrester said Democrats have a new plan they’ve branded the New Path Forward. It’s a strategic plan, produced with the help of the Ohio-based consulting firm summoned last year to aid a political party on life support. As summarized by Forrester, it sounds like a new political business model. His presentation, replete with the type of jargon that could only come from a political strategy team, includes talk of financial stakeholders, staying on message, metrics-based campaign systems and building the party’s bench.
“We’ve been doing campaigns this certain way for 10 to 15 years,” Forrester said. “If we run the campaigns in 2012 in the same way that we’ve been running them and expect a different outcome, that’s kind of the traditional definition of insanity.”
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith summed up the problem: “In the past, we have underestimated the issue of getting our message out, which has allowed the opposition to frame our stances with inaccurate terminology.”
How did this political disaster come about? Vanderbilt political science professor and department chair John Geer believes Democrats can pin their current woes on three primary factors. The first is obvious, given the political landscape of the state.
“One, you do have a state that has become increasingly conservative and therefore it’s more fertile ground for the Republicans than the Democrats,” he said. “That’s just true.”
Given that reality, the second follows naturally. Tennessee Democrats suffer from “the logic of the electoral college,” Geer said. Despite a recent headline on the Nashville Tennessean’s front page that declared Obama had “closed the gap” with Mitt Romney in the state—citing one portion of a new Vanderbilt poll in a way that Geer called misleading—the presidential race in Tennessee is not expected to be much of a race at all, with little chance of adding delegates to the Obama cause. As a result, the Obama campaign and the national Democratic Party have spent little time or money in the state, focusing instead on nearby “battleground” states like North Carolina and Virginia.
That means Tennessee—a state which Geer believes, citing the Vanderbilt poll, is actually more moderate than the state legislature it has elected and could produce a closer presidential race if the national party paid more attention—has essentially been ceded to the Republican candidate before the polls even open. And a top-of-the-ticket forfeiture only steepens the climb for Democrats elsewhere on the ballot.
“If you go back to The New York Times article right after the 2008 election and you look at the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, which are made up of basically the same people, North Carolina was going blue, Tennessee was going red,” Geer said. “I don’t think that was because the people differ all that much; it was because of organization. The Democratic Party invested heavily in every single county in North Carolina, and they haven’t done that in Tennessee.”
The third factor is one Geer attributes to “a set of bad luck.” After the departure of Harold Ford Jr., he said, Democrats lack “a set of visible state leaders.” A figure like outgoing state senator and Chattanooga mayoral candidate Andy Berke may be up-and-coming, but he doesn’t yet have the name recognition that’s needed, Geer said.
Hamilton County’s Smith takes a more optimistic attitude, citing Berke as one of the “shining political stars across the state” whose legislation experience and reputation as a skilled attorney has already allowed him to step across the aisle to garner support in the Chattanooga mayoral race.
Berke himself has a slightly different view on party politics, an opinion that may be attributed to the fact that he is now running for a nonpartisan office. “I am running my mayoral race the same way I ran both of my Senate campaigns—working with people from different communities, parties and backgrounds to build a better future,” he said. “I was proud to represent the 10th District as a Democrat, but people want leadership and a government that works for them—regardless of party.”
Democrats tout the prospect of five Democratic mayors in the state’s five largest cities—A.C. Wharton of Memphis, Karl Dean of Nashville, Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Kim McMillan of Clarksville, along with Berke, who they presume will win in Chattanooga—as a hopeful sign. But one party official lamented the hesitancy of the mayors to step forward and embrace the role.
In the meantime, elected Democrats have been and will continue to be relegated to the sidelines when it comes to most legislative matters. That was particularly evident in the recently adjourned session, during which most of the real political battles were between various factions within the Republican Party. The debate over gun rights—surrounding ultimately stalled guns-in-parking-lots legislation—was not a partisan struggle, but rather an increasingly contentious argument between two conservative constituencies.
Democratic party officials said that while fundraising from ideologically concerned donors was going strong, so-called transactional donors—specific interests and issue-oriented lobbying organizations whose political contributions are based more in self-interest than political philosophy—have been lagging. Perhaps it’s because Democrats have little to offer such interests at the moment.
“You bring all those things together, and it’s been a bad time for the Democrats and will probably continue to be so for a while,” Geer concluded.
In times such as these, heavy lies the head of any party leader. But Forrester has been beset by criticism since before he even took his current post. When he first ran for chairman in 2009, the party’s elected leadership, including then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, was outspoken about its lack of support for him, but the loyalty of the executive committee, on which he had served for nearly 20 years, eventually won him the chair.
The pressure only worsened after the party’s overwhelming failure in the 2010 elections. Among those calling for Forrester to step aside and forego a bid for a second term as chairman were Nashville attorney and former Metro Councilman David Briley and former party chairman and longtime executive committee member Will T. Cheek.
Nearly two years later, Briley shares the hindsight of most Democrats, describing the party’s decline as a steady slope going back a decade or more.
“There was an attempt to sort of patch the boat,” he said. “It was leaking all along and patch, patch, patch—and all of a sudden it became clear that the boat was sunk. You gotta start building a new boat on dry land, and that’s where the party is right now.”
Though he said he wouldn’t compare his situation to the one Obama inherited, Forrester said it’s similar in that he’s also trying to fix a situation that, he argues, was not of his making.
“I didn’t get us into this predicament—it’s been a 10-year process,” he said. “I came in at a time when we’d suffered a pretty tremendous loss, losing the House in 2008 and then the tide year. Those are just circumstances that are outside the purview of a chair, it’s just circumstances of the world that you live in.”
Moving forward but hesitant to reveal too much of the playbook, Forrester described the New Path Forward in general terms. Along with improving cohesion between the previously mentioned “siloed and disconnected” Democratic stakeholders, it involves using a “metrics-based campaign system” and the “Democratic performance index” to identify districts and races where the chances for success are greatest. The plan, Forrester said, is to put an end to good-ol’-boy-network-based resource appropriation and instead focus on candidates who might actually have a shot.
According to Smith, one of those areas with candidates that might actually have a shot is Chattanooga. With a full pool of Democrats fielded for the upcoming local elections, weary voters seem ready, at least on the surface, to fill Forrester’s vision. Current Mayor Ron Littlefield will be stepping down after his second term, leaving the door wide open for Berke, who left his Senate seat after redistricting of the state significantly changed his home district.
Meanwhile, Berke’s state senate seat has become a hotly contested destination for some revamped candidates like Andraé McGary, who is trying to prevent the looming possibility of a Republican supermajority taking place. Nooga.com quoted him as saying, “It’s crucial that we don’t let the Republican legislature think that we are just going to lay down and play dead. We’re Democrats. And the last time I checked, Democrats were called asses. Well, we got news for those in Nashville—that this donkey, that this ass still kicks. Does anyone out there want to kick with me?”
Immediately, it doesn’t appear that McGary has too many takers—especially if you’re judging by local TV time for the upcoming elections. GOP candidates for the 3rd Congressional District— incumbent Chuck Fleischmann, Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp—have dominated advertising to the point where it’s tough to name the Democratic nominees for the district and even tougher to pinpoint their level of support.
According to a Times Free Press report, the three Republican candidates have spent at least $131,826 so far on television ads alone, while Democratic candidate Bill Taylor is the only one from his party to buy TV adds, spending a paltry $812.50 on four, four-second spots that aired in early June.
McGary’s query may be more useful as a legitimate question than a battle cry. So far it seems to be echoing off the walls of a nearly empty room with inhabitants that are eyeing the exits. Life-long Democrat Bill Knowles immediately comes to mind, who drew major criticism for switching to the Republican party two years ago even though he is one of the longest-running elected officials in Hamilton County. Couple that with the stir that rumors of a Ward Crutchfield political resurrection—only five years after being indicted on bribery charges—and local Democrats sound like a microcosm of the state-wide scene.
Even Berke, whom Smith counts as a potential torch-bearer for the party, downplays his affiliation. “I have worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass critical legislation,” he said. “By focusing on economic development, accountability in government and education, we can make our city and state better. While elections often focus on party, the citizens judge government on results.”
Results are exactly what the New Path Forward is banking on. Even though Democrats largely blame their ouster on a force of political nature, their plan for resurgence depends on a phenomenon—similarly beyond their control. They’re betting on the very thing the Obama campaign is hoping to stave off: buyer’s remorse. After two legislative sessions during which Republican proposals often elicited national headlines (and sometimes mockery), they’re hoping to position themselves as the moderate adults on the Hill over the next few election cycles.
“I think [Democrats] have to get their act together, but the Republican state legislature has handed them a lot of opportunity,” said Geer, who added that moderate Democrats will still have opportunities in the state. “One of the things the [Vanderbilt poll] says is, yes the state’s conservative but it’s not as conservative as the state legislature was.”
The plan for Democratic revival requires that they’ve stopped falling. Holding the line would be a good start.
“I think our expectations are not particularly high,” Cheek said. “I don’t think anyone is expecting the party to retake the Senate. The expectations are modest. I just hope we have bottomed out. I hope that we have.”
If they haven’t, they might find cold comfort in the fact that there can’t be much further to go.
A version of this article was originally published in the Nashville City Paper. Cole Rose of The Pulse provided additional local reporting.