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.