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Make It a Battle

Even if Democrats lose in 2010, it's important to challenge the Republicans.

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The next governor of Tennessee is in all likelihood going to be a Republican. You know this, I know this, and state senator Jim Kyle knows this.

"It is clear to me that while our campaign had the assets to be competitive in the primary, the legislative fund-raising restriction, the economy, and my duties as Senate leader have severely hampered my ability to generate resources which would have been vital to our success in the general election."

Those were Memphian Kyle's words two weeks ago when he gracefully bowed out of the contest for Tennessee governor just over six months into the race.

Doubtless a months-long blackout can hurt the campaign coffers, and carrying Governor Phil Bredesen's legislative portfolio is no small task. But Kyle knew these things going in.

What changed?

Back in July, U.S. representatives John Tanner and Bart Gordon were still running for reelection, and President Obama's favorability was in the 60 percent range nationally. Now, according to a new Middle Tennessee State University poll, a slight majority (51 percent) of Tennesseans disapprove of the job Obama is doing. That jumps to 61 percent among independents.

If the economy came around and the Republican three-way primary tore the party apart, maybe there was a chance, one could rationalize, that a strong progressive, populist candidate for governor could do a little damage. It doesn't look that way now.

Just writing off the governor's race would be tempting for the Democrats. With the state's politics — and the nation's, to some extent — going in the same conservative direction, the urge to hunker down and try to save what is salvageable has to be strong.

Some may even counsel Democrats to surrender to the reality and vote for the GOP's Bill Haslam in the primary to reinforce the comparatively conciliatory Baker faction and prevent a more radical nominee like Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey or Congressman Zach Wamp from winning.

The beauty of the Tennessee system is that citizens can vote in primaries irrespective of their own party affiliation. Defeatism, on the other hand, bothers me.

There are many things to be won and lost in a campaign besides the election. The Tennessee Democratic Party has been through a lot lately. The party has lost control of the legislature and experienced a bitter election for party chairman. A vibrant primary and general-election gubernatorial campaign would show the state that the party isn't dead yet.

While 2010 isn't likely to be a Democratic year, it could be a year to show people what Tennessee Democrats are about. People are hurting out there. There are people who are experiencing real economic pain and uneasiness. Republicans have learned to harness that anger, but they don't own it. They are only renting.

The cultural battles can be saved for another day. What this state needs is a plan to bring jobs back and keep government services working. The weak-sauce solutions Republicans have offered are vague at best, irresponsible at worst. Wamp thinks we can grow ourselves out of our problems, and Haslam wants the government to buy stuff cheaper. That's all good, but it seems like it would be a strong populist and progressive message to focus on keeping the ship of state steady and the middle class afloat. That might just resonate with a few folks these days.

Can such a message win the day? No, and Jim Kyle was right on that. He couldn't win the general election, and there may not be a Democrat in Tennessee who could. But again, just because you are outmatched doesn't mean you shouldn't step on the battlefield.

Tennessee, longer than most Southern states, has been a two-party state. We like our opposition actual, not nominal. The Republican candidate for governor may win handily, but how he wins and what kind of resistance he meets can affect the policies that are shaped later. If a Republican meets little or token resistance in a campaign, he's less likely to respect the resistance that arrives down the road.

Democrats don't have to stand tall in 2010, but they need to stand up — or Tennessee may become a one-party state before its time. A.C. Kleinheider is a blogger/aggregator for the Nashville Post and the City Paper, where a version of this essay first appeared.

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