Until that point local Republicans were inclined to be somewhere between fatalistic and desperate about their chances in the countywide general election. Not only had Shelby County’s population tipped over to an African-American majority — a key to Democratic dominance, especially considering there was still an extant corps of white Democrats — but the August 2008 election had seen Democrats sweep all three of the county positions then on the ballot: assessor, Trustee, and General Sessions clerk.
It is known that Luttrell — a popular, respected public figure who had always polled well across the racial and political divides — was constantly being hot-boxed by GOP partisans to forget about seeking a third term as sheriff and run instead for county mayor. At some point early this year either he or the Republican establishment — the originating agency is unclear — commissioned a poll to determine how Luttrell might do, matched against either of the likely Democratic nominees, commissioner Deidre Malone or interim mayor and former commissioner Joe Ford.
It is an axiom in electoral politics that the fate of “down-ballot” races (on the2010 county ballot these ran from sheriff through a variety of court clerkships to register of deeds) depended on what happened at the top of the ticket. Before Luttrell’s change of mind, there was no top of the ticket. The GOP might have considered itself lucky if gonzo activist Tom Guleff, who doubled as the “Joe Citizen” blogger, followed through on a floated race for mayor.
But the poll, performed by veteran consultant John Bakke with Ethridge and Associates, showed Luttrell handily defeating either Malone or Ford. And suddenly, with Luttrell converted to running, the headless party had itself a top of the ticket.
The Democrats would gain one, too, with Ford’s victory over an under-funded Malone in the May primary, and, though the interim mayor could legitimately claim later on that he had done a “great job” as the county’s chief executive, he could never divest himself of the onus of having gone back on a pledge to his then fellow commissioners, rendered as a condition of their naming him interim mayor, not to seek a regular term as mayor.
The rude fact, too, was that the Democratic down-ballot contained too many names that were retreads of former elections and, in fact, of former eras. This was largely the consequence of the low-turnout party primaries of May, when name recognition per se was likely a determining factor. Some of the names, both new and old, bore a tarnish which the GOP was not slow to publicize.
When Gale Jones Carson, co-coordinator of the party’s general election campaign, advised party cadres at a post-primary rally to “hold their noses,” if need be, to vote for some of the nominees, she meant that as advice to potentially embittered losers. That did not prevent the thought’s becoming a meme of sorts, both for the opposition and for wavering Democrats.
The Democrats took their shots, too — sometimes effectively, as when Republican Sheriff’s candidate Bill Oldham, on leave from his job as chief deputy, was compelled to resign altogether because of publicity about possible Hatch Act violations.
But there was the aforementioned matter of those reluctant Democrats, and they may have proved decisive. As late as an election-eve rally at Hunt Phelan, at which Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter was coaxed to appear alongside mayoral nominee Ford, there were people in the crowd who confided that they intended to stray from the party ticket in this or that instance.
The problem was more general than any shortcomings associated with the local Democratic slate, and it transcended even the later allegations that white Democrats — a declining breed, in any case — were motivated to apostasy by concerns, expressed or unexpressed, having to do with race. (Not to debunk the idea, but Regina Newman, arguably an exemplary Trustee, went down to defeat with the rest of the Democrats, despite being every bit as white as her opponent, while first-timer Paul Boyd, a black Republican candidate for Probate Court clerk, was a winner along with his white running mates.)
Again, the problem is more general: Observe the new TV ads, effective in their way, produced for gubernatorial nominee McWherter and Roy Herron, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 8th District. You will look in vain for any use of the word “Democrat” as a signifier; Nor, for that matter, is there any reference, implied or otherwise, to Democratic periods, principles, or personalities of the past or present — though McWherter does note his endorsement by Governor Phil Bredesen, a famously non-partisan administrator in his own right, a Democrat who basically commenced to enact the pre-existing Republican platform upon his first election in 2002.
McWherter presents himself as a problem-solver, a Mr. Fixit, while Herron, who is up against ultra-Tea Partier Republican Stephen Fincher, might be taken for a Republican himself. He describes himself as a “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.” He opposes “bailouts” and “bad trade deals like NAFTA,” and he has previously named “fiscal insolvency” as the country’s foremost problem. All that is lacking is the ritual denunciations of the names “Obama” and “Pelosi” that his opponent is sure to employ.
In vain has linguistic philosopher George Lakoff noted, in his various treatises on the “framing” of ideological debates, how adopting the memes and code words of the opposition reinforces the opposition, not oneself, and defaults on the obligation to present an alternate vision or version of reality.
So long as Democrats are content to run as “me-too” or more moderate Republicans, they may be doomed to see the value of the party brand continue to erode. It is a mirror image of the reality pinpointed in 1964 by Ur-conservative Barry Goldwater, who turned out to be only slightly ahead of his time.
Absent general belief in the intrinsic value of a party label, or loyalty to its distinctiveness, not even the best Get-Out-the-Vote organization is likely to succeed, either among white voters or among black voters or among voters of any ethnicity whatsoever. Indeed, no such GOTV organization is likely to exist in any real way. What we have here is a failure to communicate — indeed, a lack of anything to communicate.
(To be continued)