Recently, the Vanderbilt Political Review’s Noah van Mierlo had the opportunity to sit down with the Kris Murphy, the Tennessee Democratic Party’s Senior Political Director. Mr. Murphy grew up in a political family and worked as an organizer for Tennessee Citizen Action after graduating college. He served as political director for the Tennessee AFL-CIO and worked as a consultant for several state and local campaigns before beginning his current position at the Tennessee Democratic Party. Mr. Murphy and van Mierlo discussed his and his party’s perspective in both local and national politics after the 2016 presidential election and in preparation for the 2018 elections.
VPR: Thanks for agreeing for this interview, Mr. Murphy. I’ll start off with asking about a recap of 2016 – what are your thoughts on the 2016 presidential election?
KM: Well, obviously I’m disappointed. I think that the election really exposed an anti-establishment sentiment in the American people – a real thirst for change. I think that what we saw was a lot of people who felt like the system wasn’t helping them, and that it needed to be changed. Those people felt like Donald Trump was the candidate to do that. I don’t necessarily believe that all the people who voted for Donald Trump believed in all of his policies – I think they were looking to throw a wrench in the system and they thought that voting for Donald Trump would be putting a wrench in the system.
VPR: No Democratic presidential candidate has won Tennessee since Bill Clinton. Do you think that a Democratic presidential candidate could still win the state?
KM: Well, I did not expect Secretary Clinton to beat Donald Trump in this state. I didn’t think that that was going to happen. It’s tough to foresee what it looks like in 2020, though. Assuming that Donald Trump is the nominee – since it’s not out of the realm to think that he can be primaried from within his own party, resulting on him not being on the ballot – I think there is a shot if we get a fiery Democratic populist, and depending on how badly Trump does in these four years. I’m not going to say anything absolutely, but I think that it really depends on how Trump does in his term.
VPR: So this applies only to this situation with Trump?
KM: Now, Barack Obama was certainly not going to win Tennessee for his re-election, and if it had been Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio/Ted Cruz, I would say that there is almost no chance that we’re going to beat that person in 2020. But with Donald Trump, I think he’s a very volatile politician. I think that he is either going to strike out or hit a grand slam. We just have to wait and see how it plays out, but right now it looks like it’s going to be nothing but a strikeout.
VPR: Let’s talk local politics. What about locally, in the Tennessee state legislature? In the Tennessee state house, the Democratic Party lost a net of one seat. What’s your perspective on that?
KM: Yes, the party lost a net of one seat – which, as sad as it sounds, is actually good. It’s been ten years since we’ve had that good of a result. The last five cycles or so, we’ve actually been getting destroyed, losing way more seats.
VPR: Do you think this is part of a larger movement?
KM: Yes, exactly. What we really saw, I think – and it will take some time to look at the numbers and really dig into the data to see how much this was worn out – we saw a finalizing of a shift that has occurred over the last decade or so. This is where rural areas are really completing a move away from the Democratic Party, particularly in response to the national Democratic Party brand. There were many districts in the state that, on paper, looked like they could be competitive in rural areas. But what we found when we did polling was that the Democratic brand itself was poisoned. We also saw a shift in a lot of urban areas in our favor, though. This is including Shelby County, which is a traditionally white Republican area, where we were actually able to knock off an incumbent Republican in this past election. Areas that had traditionally been strong Republican are shifting Democratic. Overall, what we have been seeing is a shift towards urban versus rural dichotomy rather than anything else.
VPR: Despite this shift, do you think that there was anything the party did that you, looking back, could have done better in local elections?
KM: Yeah, I think that whether you’re successful or not there’s always things you can do better, and of course we didn’t have a great result. So I think there are definitely things to improve on, and one of them is doing candidate recruitment earlier. Although we fielded a great group of candidates, one of the largest recruiting classes in recent cycles, I think that if we had started earlier we could have had stronger candidates in some areas. Also, I think that one thing we saw, especially for first time candidates, was that it was not enough to give them training, to do one big training, or to do big weekly webinar training, and then tell them that they could call us any time for support. What we found is that in the places where we were successful was that they were places where we were completely hands on all throughout the campaign, helping them decide what is and is not a good use of their time and resources. I think that in a lot of these instances, we felt that if we just provided them with the tools and training, we could send them off on their own and if they ran into any problems, they could give us a call. But what we found was that in reality, once they’d get out in the district, when they have 100 different people pointing them in 100 different directions, a lot of the training we provided to them would go out the window, and they’re not calling in to check on it. So when we do a check-up call two weeks later, we find that they have veered way off course, and it becomes exponentially harder to get them back on the straightened arrow.
VPR: Looking towards the future, there are two statewide elections coming up in 2018 (Governor and Senator). How is the party preparing for those, and do you think that Democrats have a real shot?
KM: So the governor’s race thus far has been the race that more insiders and establishment folks have been looking at as competitive, since it’s an open seat as a result of Bill Haslam being term limited. This is because any time you have an open seat, it’s easier than beating an incumbent. So already, several very serious candidates on the Democratic side have expressed interest in that race, and we have already seen former Nashville mayor Karl Dean decide to run. If the Republicans end up with a far right candidate, then we have a shot at the governor’s race because if you look at the history of Tennessee statewide elections, whether it’s U.S. Senate or governor’s races, we tend to elect people who are moderate. We’ve had a moderate Republican in Bill Haslam, a moderate Democrat in Phil Bredesen, and this has gone all the way back with Ned McWhorter and Don Sundquist. Even now, Bob Corker is considered a moderate Republican. We are sort of a center-right state, so I think that if [the Republicans] have a primary where the winner who emerges is farther to the right, we have a shot in that race.
VPR: And the Senate?
KM: On the U.S. Senate side, it’s a little more difficult because you have an incumbent, Bob Corker, who already has a ton of money in the bank and can use his incumbency to his benefit. But, the flipside is, much more so than in the governor’s race, Corker can be tied to Donald Trump. Obviously it was just a few months ago that Trump carried the state in huge numbers, but a significant shift in Trump’s support here in Tennessee could negatively affect Corker as well. I have heard a couple of names that are interested in that race, but none that have publicly floated any consideration. I think that having the right candidate for Senate in a situation where Donald Trump has lost a lot of his popularity here in Tennessee creates an opportunity to win that Senate seat as well.
VPR: Is it too early to be really preparing for those races?
KM: What we’re doing right now is that we’re working with the candidates that are interested and we’re helping them look at the data and things like that, and talking to folks that are interested in running, and showing them what a path to victory looks like, so that they have an idea of what it would be like. We’re also doing a lot of work to organize the folks who have been galvanized into action post-Trump. We probably have had more walk in volunteers or folks who have just called and said, “I want to volunteer,” since the election than we did in the month or two leading up to the election. So one of the things that we’re doing is getting folks ready and organized to be a grassroots force for these statewide candidates.
VPR: Thank you very much. To conclude, do you think that the Democrats have a good chance of winning a net overall gain in the Tennessee state house, and the state senate, in 2018?
KM: I think that we are in a position where we should be able to hold all the seats we currently have, since we are only going to have one freshman representative up for reelection – the one who won in Shelby County, Dwayne Thompson – so I think that other incumbent Democrats have proven that they can hold their seats. This allows us to be almost entirely on the offensive, and there’s at least one seat that we lost by around 100 votes two years ago, so we should have a real shot of picking that up. There are also several other seats that could be competitive, especially those urban or suburban areas where we see movement in our direction. There was a race where our early polling showed that it wasn’t going to be very close in a smaller urban area, and the candidate ran a decent campaign – nothing great, he did not raise a lot of money – and still got close to 45%. So districts like that, I think that with a good campaign and a good candidate and backing from the caucus and other groups, we have a real shot at picking up seats.