Dwayne Thompson’s Upset Win

Winner of the District 96 state House was the only Tennessee Democrat to unseat a Republican incumbent lawmaker.

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Artiles (l), Thomson on the WATN set - JB
  • JB
  • Artiles (l), Thomson on the WATN set

It wasn’t just in the presidential election or in the nation at large that surprising results occurred. Republican dominance of public office in Tennessee is virtually complete and become so in the three successive statewide elections of 2010, 2012, and 2014, resulting in a seemingly unbreakable legislative super-majority.

Given that fact, and considering that the 2016 election cycle will have put Donald Trump into the presidency and given the Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and House, it is downright astonishing that Democrat Dwayne Thompson, a likeable longtime party activist in his ‘60s, should have won election to the state House from a suburban Shelby County district. It is doubly astonishing that he unseated an incumbent Republican to do so.

Yet that is exactly what Thompson did in the election ending on November 8, knocking off the well-established GOP state Representative Steve McManus in District 96 (Cordova, Germantown), by a total of 351 votes out of almost 28,000 cast.

“It was a close election, and I expected it to be close,” a relaxed Thompson said on Thursday to WATN-TV anchor Brandon Artiles as they recorded an interview for this Sunday’s Local 24 show, following the regular segment of ABC’s This Week show with George Stephanopoulos.

Thompson’s diffident manner belied the phenomenal nature of his upset win. In the decade of the 2010’s in red-state Tennessee, Republicans do not lose many races to Democratic candidates, and certainly GOP incumbents, like McManus, the long-serving chairman of the House Insurance and Banking committee, don’t lose to Democrats.

And, in fact, McManus didn’t lose to Thompson during the Democrat’s first challenge to his incumbency in 2014. This year’s race was expected by most to be a replay of that one in every respect.

Except it wasn’t. Thompson was the only Democrat to upset an incumbent Republican legislator in Tennessee, and, as he told Artiles during their interview, “maybe in the South.”

It is a truism that once somebody performs an act previously thought undoable, it sets an example for others to follow suit; so Thompson’s feat makes it inevitable that other Republicans, in Shelby County and elsewhere in Tennessee, are liable to get a run for their money in 2018.

Speaking of money, McManus’ war chest, totaling $155,754.59 as of the third-quarter financial-disclosure deadline, dwarfed Thompson’s $5,088.20 as of that date. To be sure, Thompson would later receive an infusion of financial aid from the Tennessee Democratic Party, enough to fund some modest Internet advertising that pointed out, among other things, the fact that he had a military record.

But what really did the trick for Thompson was hard campaigning. In a campaign managed by super-activist Diane Cambron, with assistance from veteran consultant Bret Thompson and a bevy of dedicated supporters from local Democratic ranks, candidate Thompson estimates that his team knocked on 12,000 doors in the district while he alone did 4,000. His campaign had phone banks going full-time, and he greeted early voters at the Agri-Center on a daily basis.

As Thompson explained to Artiles, his immediate objectives in the legislature will be to work on funding for public education, which he regards as under-funded and vulnerable to become more so in an age of charter schools and proposed vouchers to private schools. He hopes also to help revive prospects for Governor Bill Haslam’s dormant Insure Tennessee proposal for Medicaid expansion and to do something about what he sees as Cordova’s serious traffic problems.

And, he said, he wants to spend time getting to know legislators “in the other party and in other parts of the state,” so as to lay the basis for cooperative endeavors.

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