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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.