Surprising as it may be to Tennesseans who have become politically aware within the last few years, in 2006, Democratic prospects in Tennessee were actually looking up. In the elections that year, incumbent governor and Democrat Phil Bredesen beat Republican challenger Jim Bryson by a whopping 700,000 votes, Democrat Harold Ford Jr. lost a close Senate race to Republican Bob Corker by only 50,000 votes, and all five incumbent Democratic congressmen handily won reelection. That made it sting all the more when Democrats saw such a quick reversal of fortunes in the next few years. In 2010, three Democratic congressmen announced their retirement, and all three seats were lost to incoming Republicans. The State House of Representatives was also lost to Republicans, and thus with the 2010 redistricting Republicans were easily able to shore up their gains and further worsen Democratic prospects.
That brings us to 2012, the nadir of the Tennessee Democratic Party. Republicans gained a supermajority in both the State Senate and State House of Representatives, but that indignity pales in comparison to what happened with the national Senate race and the now-famous Mark Clayton. Clayton, who endeavored to run against Republican Lamar Alexander in 2008 (announcing his candidacy with this campaign video that defies explanation), ultimately lost the Democratic primary that year. In 2012, however, he actually won the Democratic primary (probably by virtue of his name being at the top of the ticket). Unfortunately for Clayton’s nascent political career, he was soon disavowed by the Democratic Party for a multitude of reasons best summarized in this article; highlights include being the Vice President of a known anti-gay hate group, claiming that FEMA runs prison camps, and frequently warning against a “godless New World Order”.
With that history in mind, it’s not hard to see why Democrats are scrambling to find strong candidates to run in the 2014 elections, but so far their prospects aren’t looking too good. In the House, it’s unlikely that Democrats will pick up any new seats; the 2010 redistricting created seven districts that all supported John McCain in the 2008 general election with over 60% of the vote in each. The only positive for Tennessee liberals is that Jim Cooper (D-TN 5th District) and Steve Cohen (D-TN 9th District) saw their district get more Democratic or not change at all, respectively, so their seats aren’t too vulnerable.
One of the Democrats better hopes for 2014 is Lamar Alexander’s Senate seat. Democrat Terry Adams, a veteran and attorney from Knoxville, has been drawing attention and support. Alexander’s seat is looking at least slightly vulnerable (Vanderbilt has him polling at just under 50% at the end of 2013), and he’s also being challenged on the right by Tea Partier Joe Carr from Murfreesboro. It’s unlikely, however, that Carr can actually defeat Alexander in the primary, since Carr polls at 19% to Alexander’s 42% among Tea Party members, who would ideally be Carr’s most vocal supporters. The best Democrats can hope for is a protracted primary battle that dirties Alexander enough to give Adams (if he wins the Democratic primary) enough of a leg-up to pose a serious threat.
The most worrying part of the 2014 elections for Democrats is the gubernatorial race. Incumbent Bill Haslam was at a 61% approval rating at the end of 2013, with an impressive 76% rating from Republicans and Tea Partiers alike. Furthermore, not only has no one yet filed a petition to officially declare their candidacy (the deadline is in three months), not one person has even unofficially declared their candidacy to the press at all. This bleak outlook is a new twist for Tennessee Democrats: their expectations were dashed at the beginning of this month when Memphis Democrat Sarah Kyle announced that she would not be running for governor in 2014. Although Kyle said last August she was considering challenging Haslam, the last few weeks of 2013 wound down with no further word from her office and no signs of any fundraising operations. Even if the announcement was not a surprise, it was still a large blow for the party. At this point, with no Democratic candidate having even begun fundraising or getting his or her name out there, it’s unlikely Haslam will face a serious challenge come November.
Fortunately there is a silver lining for Tennessee Democrats. While the statewide party may be crippled at the moment, in the long term the situation looks much brighter. Currently the seven largest cities in Tennessee are all run by Democratic mayors, many of whom obviously have greater political aspirations and could pose serious threats to Republicans down the road. Democratic fortunes don’t look good right now because Tennessee Republicans and Tea Partiers are still being mobilized by the Affordable Care Act, and because President Obama’s approval rating continues to decline, casting state and local Democrats in a bad light. These mayors and other strong Democrats aren’t going to risk their careers by running in such an inhospitable situation for Democrats, but look to 2018, for example. The governorship will again be open, along with a Senate seat, and there are always those seven Republican Congressional districts, several of which contain these large cities with Democratic mayors. This may be wishful thinking considering Democratic prospects for this year’s elections, but it’s important to recognize that Tennessee Democrats aren’t as defunct in the long term as these most recent election cycles would suggest.
[Image Credit: http://www.mtsujournalism.org/congresswatch/graphics/TN_cong_districts.2012.LRG.png]