Democratic mayoral nominee Harris and campaign manager Danielle Inez (foreground) with celebrants Tuesday night
The bottom-line message of this week’s election results in Shelby County was that, in a low turnout election, Democrats were out in relative force. Their two candidates for Shelby County mayor — state Senator Lee Harris, winner with 34,081 votes in the Democratic primary over runner-up sidney Chism (10,435) — eclipsed the total vote for three ballyhooed GOP mayoral candidates: Trustee David Lenoir, with 18,408; Shelby County Commission firebrand Terry Roland 8,650, and Juvenile Court clerk Joy Touliatos (3,155). The two Democratic mayoral candidates polled roughly 13,000 more votes in their primary than did the three Republicans, who spent vastly more money and dominated news coverage. Shorter version: Yes, Virginia, there is a blue wave.
There were appreciably more Democrats running in the various primary races overall — an effect that will be duplicated in the August 2nd-round (county general election plus state and federal primaries) when, for example, Democratic candidates will be vying for every one of Shelby County’s 17 state House seats and the three state Senate seats on the ballot, while GOP candidates will be cherry-picking their seats from presumably solidly Republican areas. The memory must surely linger, however, of Democrat Dwayne Thompson’s upset win in 2016 over Republican incumbent Steve McManus in House District 96, a southeast Memphis/suburban collage that was showing residential change. GOP incumbent Jim Coley’s adjacent District 97 seat is being targeted in the same way with an aggressive campaign from Democrat Allan Creasy.
There have been other cracks in the once-homogeneous Republican establishment. Ed Roberson, a prominent GOP financial angel who has served as finance chair of campaigns by former Senators Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, has taken the same position locally with Democrat David Weatherspoon, one of two Democrats running in the Senate District 31 primary with the aim of knocking off Republican incumbent Brian Kelsey in November. One other Democrat in that race has an interesting backstory. It’s Gabby Salinas, a Bolivian transplant who came to Memphis as a child for cancer treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, survived, and vows to throw off Kelsey the same way she did her cancer. First, of course, she’ll have to get by Weatherspoon, who has raised far more money.
There will be more than one contested Democratic primary on August 2nd — a state of things reminiscent of the way Republican ballots looked when the GOP began its march to dominance back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The County general election on August 2nd also has the potential of becoming the basis for a Democratic rally. Mayoral nominee Harris is a Yale graduate, a law professor, and a polished African-American candidate with clear crossover potential, as was indicated in his prior victories for the Memphis City Council and state Senate, where he became minority leader of the Democrats’ rump Senate faction. Lenoir was undoubtedly the best GOP prospect to hold the party banner, but, again, this would appear to be a year in which the county’s majority Democratic demographic votes its numbers.
The Shelby County Commision already tilts 7-6 Democratic, and its District 5 bailiwick, now Republican, is shifting into the same kind of swing district that House District 96 became last election. Turnout between Democrats and Republicans was roughly equal during the just concluded county primary, creating grounds for optimism for Democratic nominee Michael Whaley, an educational administrator who is being guided by consultant Steven Reid, who last worked his magic for the winning campaigns of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in 2015 and 8th District Republican Congressman David Kustoff in 2016.
To be sure, the current four-way fight between Republican millionaires in the gubernatorial race will provide a reservoir of active Republican votes in August, but Democrats have their own game going — with Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh — to offset that somewhat.
Again: There’s the real possibility of a blue wave in Shelby County.
Kustoff was the speaker Wednesday at a luncheon of the Memphis Kiwanis club at the University Club, and it became his duty, as a former club member, to recognize guests at the luncheon, calling their names out in turn and asking them to rise for brief applause. One of the guests was John Boatner, a Democratic candidate for Kustoff’s seat. The Congressman said, “Stand up, John,” following that almost instantly with “Sit down,John.”