Tennessee House Democrats will have to start calling themselves the “Fighting 25,” down from the “Fighting 26,” after dropping a district in the battle to regain relevance statewide.
With longtime Rep. David Shepard stepping away from the Legislature, Democrats pretty much conceded his Middle Tennessee district as Republican Michael Curcio handily defeated Democrat Dustin Evans.
Out of three extremely close races, they won only one, albeit a big one. And in the year of Trump, Democrats here can’t point to a White House victory, as they could with President Obama in the last two presidential elections.
The situation raises serious questions about the party’s structure and financial strength, because even those who could raise money floundered, and those without a Democratic dollar didn’t come close.
Eliott Canter, the campaign chairman for Senate District 14 Democratic candidate Gayle Jordan in Murfreesboro, says the Tennessee Democratic Party is broke and broken.
“Democrats don’t have the structure or the money,” he says. “We’re infra-structurally deficient. Until you get the base fixed, anything you put on top is going to implode on itself.”
Unable to win a bitterly contested race between Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson and Democratic challenger Erin Coleman, Democrats maintained their hold on super-minorities in the state Senate, down 28-5, and in the Tennessee House, down 64-25.
Of course, Tennessee Democrats started losing elections long before Trump came along, for myriad reasons, as the state’s outlook changed along with the social mantra of state and national parties, in addition to eight years of President Barack Obama, who despite 56 percent national approval ratings isn’t widely loved in Tennessee.
In Knoxville, former Democratic House member Gloria Johnson couldn’t overcome Republican backing for Rep. Eddie Smith on Nov. 8.
He edged her 11,160 to 11,006, a mere 154 votes, even though she outraised and outspent him during the election.
Tennessee Registry of Election Finance reports show Smith brought in $50,000 less than Johnson, $119,510 (with a beginning balance of $23,911) including Haslam family money and plenty of donations from sitting House members.
He spent $105,400 on his campaign while Johnson netted $170,050 in contributions, including some money from Congressman Jim Cooper, and poured more than $148,000 into her effort to regain the seat she lost two years ago.
But to no avail.
In another loss that had to cut deep for Democrats, Sparta Republican Paul Sherrell ousted one-term Democrat Kevin Dunlap by about 1,450 votes in District 43, even though Dunlap, a teacher, had a major financial advantage, starting the campaign with more than $31,700 in the bank, raising nearly $53,500 and spending nearly $52,000.
Sherrell, on the other hand, had to lend himself $3,000 to jumpstart his campaign, then reaped $23,000, mostly from Republican lawmakers, to boost his campaign and gain a victory.
Crediting “the good Lord” for the win, Sherrell spent only about $14,500, less than a third of Dunlap. He also says he gained votes by promising to be more accessible than the Democratic incumbent, even giving out his home phone number.
He says he also showed clear support for Trump.
People in Grundy, Warren and White counties often asked him what ticket he was running on, and when he responded Republican, “They’d say, ‘Well, I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but I’m not gonna vote Democrat this time, I’m voting for Trump,’” he points out.
“They’d ask me who I’m voting for, and I’d say ‘Trump.’ They’d say, ‘Well, that’s who I’m voting for.’”
No doubt, Sherrell says, he won some votes on Trump’s coattails, in a state where Trump captured 61 percent of the vote. Only three counties backed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the urban centers of Davidson and Shelby and Haywood County.
Some semblance of victory
Democrats can boast one win – a significant one, too – in a 355-vote victory by Dwayne Thompson over 10-year Rep. Steve McManus, who chaired the House health committee and served on the 3-Star Healthy Task Force, which is charged with figuring out where to go with a state health insurance program for the working poor.
Thompson, 66, a retired human relations professional, says he won in part because District 96 in the Cordova and Germantown area just outside Memphis has more Democratic voters than it once did, making it about even now. The rest, he says, came from hard work.
“We had a tremendous ground game, and I knocked on a lot of doors, probably about 4,000 doors myself personally and with my team we knocked on probably about 12,000 or more doors,” he adds.
His campaign also sent out multiple mailers to spread his message, which in part focused on improving traffic flow, a major problem in Memphis.
Thompson says he gained ground as well by opposing vouchers using public dollars to send students from struggling public schools to private ones. He also wants increased investment in the state’s Basic Education Program, the funding formula for public schools, which he contends is inadequate.
Thompson and McManus were on opposite sides of the argument over vouchers in a city considered ground zero for the statewide debate. When legislators across Tennessee back the concept of vouchers, they usually point toward Memphis and the quality of its schools as a reason vouchers are needed.
But Thompson says that isn’t resonating with his constituents.
“I think the majority of people in my district feel that’s not the solution,” Thompson says, noting schools in his district do well while those in Germantown’s municipal school system are not part of the Shelby County Schools.
“(People) were afraid vouchers would eventually take money away from their system as well as the Shelby County system.”
Thompson came out ahead even though McManus’ campaign seemed to have an account with Fort Knox. The Republican incumbent had $150,000 in his campaign fund when the race started and brought in $63,500 this year while spending $58,200, some of it going to other Republican candidates.
Thompson, meanwhile, raised and spent about $28,500. He had loans of more than $9,800 and benefited mightily from a $14,600 injection from the Tennessee Democratic Party.
State Democrats can help a candidate win, he explains.
“They don’t have unlimited funds,” he says. “But I think for candidates who … have districts potentially winnable and who put together a good campaign structure and have shown that they’re viable candidates, that the party is very, very helpful.”
However, Canter wasn’t so sure about that the night his candidate got trounced by Republican Sen. Jim Tracy. Jordan got some help from Rutherford’s Democratic Party but little if anything from the state party, as she raised $15,800 and spent about $11,800.
Tracy, a former congressional candidate, entered the race with $184,600 and raised another $98,800. He spent nearly $131,500, even though he didn’t have to, sending out numerous mailers.
With that type money, Canter says, Republicans can get away with whatever they want politically, and he points to a situation in Rutherford County where Republican candidates in five races declined to participate in a League of Women Voters forum, killing the event and any chances for Democratic candidates to have their views heard on TV.
Canter balks at Republican claims of balanced budgets amid a $500 million shortfall in education and $200 million in Rutherford County road projects sitting idle ($6 billion statewide, officials say).
A five-year plan to repeal the Hall tax on dividends and investments also will lead to lower services or property tax increases, or both, he argues, and put more burden on the state’s regressive sales tax structure.
But as long as Republicans control the conversation and the money, Canter says, Democrats will be “just a leaf in the wind.”
Reversal of fortunes
Many years ago, former Gov. Ned McWherter visited City Café in Murfreesboro, at one time the go-to place for political talk. He was surrounded by key Democrats such as Rep. John Bragg.
But even in the mid-90s, the wind was shifting. Someone pointed out to me that day, “This crowd is getting awfully long in the tooth.”
Rutherford County, as it turns out, is a microcosm of the political shift across Tennessee. Gone are Bragg, former Sen. John Rucker, former Rep. Kent Coleman, all deceased. Former Sen. Andy Womack remains active, but only to a point. They’ve been replaced by ultra-conservatives who vote party line for the most part, socially and fiscally.
Sen. Bill Ketron, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, shifted from Democrat to Republican and became the first GOP senator in his former district since the Civil War.
Having been a Democrat in the 1990s, Ketron says the party’s values have changed, especially on the social front.
“I think those who are conservative Democrats, the last generation and the generation before, they were churchgoing and very conservative, farmers, etc., and some of those values have transposed over into those Republican values today,” he points out.
“If you go down to Hooper’s Supply and talk to some of those old guys, or you talk to farmers, they’re all voting Republican now. So I think that’s kind of transposed over into the values compared to some of the social issues that have gone away from them. … same-sex marriage, LGBT, those type things, which were never thought about or talked about in church or around the kitchen table with their families.
“It infiltrated in here, and now we’re talking marijuana, so I don’t know where we’re headed.”
Ketron, who has campaigned against illegal immigration and raised his share of questions about Muslims, claims a role in building the Senate Republican supermajority with outgoing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. They found stronger candidates and put together a financial structure to elect them.
Ramsey, who is being replaced by Rep. Jon Lundberg in the Upper East Tennessee Senate post, had this to say after the presidential election: “In truly historic fashion, Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States capturing the votes of millions of forgotten Americans confounding experts and establishmentarians across the globe.
“Quite simply, he has shocked the world. His ‘America First’ positions on trade, immigration and foreign policy spoke to a large portion of the electorate which has been denied a voice for a long time.”
(Does he think today’s millennials want to sit at a sewing machine or lay bricks for 10 hours a day?)
Oddly enough, Ramsey declined to comment before the election when asked to say what impact he felt a Trump presidency would have on Tennessee. But he supported Trump all along, though Gov. Bill Haslam called for Trump to step aside.
It is ironic more than six of 10 Tennesseans would support Trump, or vote against Clinton, based largely on his promise to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act, an effort to provide millions of uninsured Americans with health care insurance. About 290,000 Tennesseans remain in a gap between TennCare and Obamacare because the state Legislature hasn’t expanded its Medicaid program.
Then again, Trump is reneging already on his promise to kill Obamacare, saying he likes some of its provisions. So here we are are two months from inauguration and Trump is flip-flopping already.
Maybe he saw the lines of protesters marching through the nation’s streets and college campuses – people are scared to death – and, sort of like the Grinch, realized he had a heart somewhere deep down (he’s getting the benefit of the doubt here). Or maybe he figured he won the election, so it didn’t really matter what he said while on the campaign trail.
Whatever the case, as long as Tennessee Democrats have to deal with those odds, their super-minority will continue to slide toward the scrap heap of political history.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.