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VOL. 42 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 22, 2018

Enthusiasm not enough to turn Tennessee blue

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Tennessee’s legislative Democrats are eternally optimistic. They don’t have much choice but to look on the bright side with 75-24 and 28-5 deficits in the House and Senate.

So when they put a nearly full slate of candidates on the ticket for November’s general election – about 110 districts – and say they’ve got a good chance of picking up seats, they almost have to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

Sure, they could win a handful, yet they could lose a handful as well.

As they enter the fall race, Democrats may feel like they have morality on their side as they clamor for a softer stance on immigration, increased education funding and expanded Medicaid using federal tax dollars funneled from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., and nationwide.

“Up and down the ticket, we have opportunities to elect more Democrats on Nov. 6, and when we do that, we envision a brighter future for all Tennesseans: where our children have the opportunity to receive a high-quality public education that fits their vision of the future; where everyone can afford health care and medicine and has access to a doctor and a nearby hospital in case of emergency; and where a growing economy creates good-paying jobs and the opportunity to retire with dignity and security,” Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini says in a statement.

That sounds great.

But even as hordes of people descend on the state Capitol each session screaming for better health coverage and better treatment of immigrant students, those stances aren’t translating into votes, especially in rural Tennessee.

Abortion restrictions, uninhibited gun-carry rights and an all-out war on illegal and legal immigration apparently trump Democrats’ hot-button issues, even though Medicaid expansion and more state education funds would probably help most of rural Tennessee.

Thus, aside from two or three seats that could flip to Democrats this fall, the most likely chance for a “blue wave” to hit Tennessee will come with two former Nashville mayors riding the surfboard: Karl Dean and Phil Bredesen.

Political scientists John Geer of Vanderbilt and Kent Syler of MTSU both say they believe Democrats have their best chances in these races.

Geer seems a little more certain Tennessee could see a national blue tide come here because of historical precedent, saying Democrats should expect a “small advantage.” Syler notes it’s too early to tell, but he gives Dean and Bredesen the best shot at success.

“The Democrats were fortunate to find good candidates to run for governor and U.S. Senate, and in a statewide election they have some opportunities because it’s not so gerrymandered or self-gerrymandered like a lot of the state House and state Senate districts are,” Syler points out.

“Unfortunately for Democrats, there just aren’t that many (competitive) House and Senate seats. There are some, but it’s less about candidates than it is largely this urban-rural split.”

Despite Democrats gathering steam with more than 30 wins in special elections since President Donald Trump’s 2016 win, Tennessee is so pro-Trump it’s “a little insulated” from a Democratic tide rolling through the state, Syler adds.

Plus, with Trump’s antics shifting daily, if not hourly, people won’t be able to make a decision – especially independents – until the final days of voting.

Sure, the economy is humming along as the summer begins, and Trump holds sway among Republican ideologues with the Singapore summit bringing something of a denuclearization promise from the “little rocket man,” these matters could well be forgotten by early November. But then, we should know whether a trade war over Trump’s tariffs has driven up U.S. prices and put people out of work.

A poll from Morning Consult and POLITICO shows 70 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of independents believe the Trump-Kim summit was successful, while only 38 percent of Democrats thought it turned out well.

A 41 percent plurality of voters see Trump more favorable in the summit’s wake, in contrast to 17 percent who view him less favorable, according to the poll. Thirty-six percent of independents have a better impression of the president compared to 17 percent who see him as less favorable.

On the other hand, 55 percent of voters say North Korea isn’t likely to get rid of nuclear weapons following the summit, according to the poll.

The question is whether Tennesseans will remember the summit even took place in five months.

By that time, Trump is likely to move on to some other matter, maybe even rounding up children of illegal immigrants going to Metro Nashville Public Schools and putting them in tent camps – not just those caught crossing border illicitly.

The analysis

House Democrats draw much of their enthusiasm and optimism from Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Ripley banker who knows what it’s like to be the House majority leader and remains upbeat even against long odds in the superminority.

As he faces Dean in the August Democratic primary, Fitzhugh even has some ammunition in the former Nashville mayor’s alleged use of federal flood relief money for the design of Ascend Amphitheater rather than for helping people rebuild their homes after the 2010 disaster.

Still, Fitzhugh remains a long shot to win, mainly because of financial resources. He ain’t poor, but it takes a million bucks to win a gubernatorial race. And Dean will be able to draw on support among independents statewide and his own bankroll to go up against the last Republican standing. (We’ll leave that one for another analysis coming soon.)

In a way, Fitzhugh mirrors the plight of the Democratic Party in Tennessee – a holdout from the days it controlled the House and Senate and was strong in rural Tennessee, long before Democrats were forced to take a stand on state income taxes, Barack Obama, same-sex marriage and Insure Tennessee.

And even though Fitzhugh takes a practical stance on most issues, sometimes being practical isn’t good enough to win at the ballot box in a state that started turning red about 20 years ago. In Tennessee you’ve got to cater to voters who see life in black-and-white terms with no in-between on abortion, immigration and marriage.

So while Tennessee Democratic candidates have plenty of enthusiasm and energy, they’ve got to learn to play the game, because Republicans will say and spend whatever it takes to win.

That’s how they play, and that’s why they’re just as optimistic they will turn back a “blue wave” this fall.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.ccom.

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