NASHVILLE -- When we go to the polls on Nov. 5 (earlier than that for many of us), Tennesseans will decide more than who will be our next governor, U.S. senator, members of Congress and whether we want a state lottery.
We will determine the philosophical direction of Tennessee, which turned decidedly Republican in 1994 and continues along that path. That brings us to todays topic: the future of the Democratic Party in Tennessee.
Political experts largely agree that Tennessee is one-third Democratic, one-third Republican and one-third independent. Exit polls show the percentage for the major parties to be a bit higher, up to 40 percent each. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Republicans have an edge, based on recent voter trends.
Tennessee leans Republican, but thats about it, Sabato said. Its the independents that make the difference. When you push them, they lean Republican and conservative. It produces about a 53-47 percent edge for Republicans in Tennessee. Thats not overwhelming.
In the gubernatorial race, former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen could benefit from the publics disdain for Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who pushed hard during his second term for a Tennessee income tax. Republican Van Hilleary has distanced himself from fellow Republican Sundquist.
Independents are not firm Republicans. If the Republicans mess up, independents have no hesitation about voting Democratic, Sabato said It appears that Tennessee has more Republicans than Democrats, whose top candidates kicked off a statewide bus tour two weeks ago in the Republican stronghold of East Tennessee. Democratic strategists recognize the growing disparity between party allegiances and are reaching out to moderate Republicans as well as independents.
Bredesen is a good example. He is a conservative Democrat who, philosophically, could have been considered either a D or an R 20 years ago. He is a successful businessman who wants to keep a lid on state spending and taxation, two strong Republican themes.
There is no question about the Republican credentials of Hilleary, Bredesens opponent in the gubernatorial race. If anything, Hilleary is swinging more and more to the right, and that appears to be what many Tennesseans want in a governor.
That brings us to a Vanderbilt University lecture by Democrat Artur Davis, 34, a Harvard-educated former U.S. attorney who defeated a five-term incumbent Democrat in Alabamas 7th U.S. House District.
Davis, who like his former opponent is black, has become a student of the eroding Democratic Party in the South. He has perspective: he comes from modest means and, should he defeat his Libertarian opponent as expected on Nov. 5, will represent one of the poorest districts in the country.
The Democratic Party in the South must work with both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, Davis noted. That means working with business leaders while retaining the traditional support of organized labor. It means meeting the needs of the poor while realizing the limitations of government spending.
Jobs and education get the attention of those who feel disenfranchised from the political process. Educate them, and the poorest of the poor can find work in skilled or high-tech industries. Unskilled jobs those workers once filled have gone offshore or disappeared altogether.
According to Davis, the Democratic Party also must recognize that elections are about very large consequences and values in our society. TV commercials dont win elections, values do. And when I say values, what I mean is a sense of what is important, a sense of what matters.
He added: I think the Democratic Party has to always be É the party that preaches and speaks to compassion in our society. It has to be the party that Robert Kennedy tried to build in 1968.
Tennessees Democratic Party appears to be working on those themes. Well know on Nov. 5 how well it has succeeded.