Politics » Politics Feature

Getting There From Here

Tennessee Democrats face a long and difficult road back to power.



State representative Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), who was reelected last week as leader of the 28 Democrats remaining in the 99-member state House of Representatives, created something of a stir in the wake of his win, when he suggested that "someone at the top" of the state party should become a candidate for governor in 2014, opposing incumbent Republican governor Bill Haslam.

Asked by reporters if he himself might fit that role, Fitzhugh did not disown the possibility, and Democratic bloggers and activists across the state responded quickly and positively to the idea of his candidacy. Enthusiasm was perhaps greatest in West Tennessee, bailiwick for Fitzhugh and for such state party luminaries of the recent past as longtime House speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, now retired, and former Governor Ned McWherter of Dresden and longtime Senate speaker and lieutenant governor John Wilder of Somerville, both now deceased.

In the election cycle of 2012, when other West Tennessee Democrats fared poorly, Fitzhugh overcame a stout challenge from a well-financed Republican to win reelection to his District 82 seat.

The courtly and well-spoken Fitzhugh, a banker and lawyer, is respected among members of both parties and, as party leader, proved himself adept at keeping lines of communication open with the now-dominant Republicans while simultaneously making strong arguments for Democratic positions.

The question is: Would Fitzhugh be willing to forgo another reelection try in 2014 in favor of what would almost certainly be the role of sacrificial lamb in a gubernatorial race?

The facts, as revealed in a poll recently conducted by Vanderbilt University and announced last week, are that Haslam's popularity, halfway into his first term, is high with Tennesseans of all political persuasions.

The poll, conducted of Tennessee voters, who were contacted on both land-line and cell phones during the period between November 27th and December 9th, showed the governor to be enjoying a general approval rating of 68 percent. That broke down to 81 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of independents, 60 percent of Democrats, and 79 percent of Tea Party adherents. Moreover, at a time when the nation's Congress was approved of by only 21 percent of those polled, a majority — 52 percent — had a favorable opinion of the GOP-dominated Tennessee legislature.

If there was a high sign for Democrats in the poll, it was that the approval rating of President Barack Obama, which was 39 percent in a VU poll taken in May, had risen to 45 percent. That finding could prove especially meaningful, since the precipitate decline in Democratic fortunes in Tennessee can be traced to 2008, the year of Obama's national triumph but one in which Republican presidential candidate John McCain won Tennessee by a 15-point margin over Obama.

It was a last-minute campaign trip that year by McCain to Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border, that many observers credit with a surprise defeat of then state representative Nathan Vaughn, the Democrat who served the adjoining district in Tennessee. It was the unexpected loss of that seat, along with two or three others, that gave a majority in the state House to Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. A number of Democrats, too, have suggested that the party's standing in Tennessee suffered from Obama's victory in the long Democratic primary season of 2008 over Hillary Clinton, who had the support of most ranking party members that year and who won the Tennessee primary.

Not only was Obama's support base bereft of established supporters in county after county, the national Democratic campaign organization that year largely bypassed Tennessee in its allocation of funding and cadres.

The Republican victories in 2010, the year of Tea Party rebellion, were even greater than those of 2008, and in 2012, in elections conducted after a Republican-controlled redistricting process, the GOP achieved a virtual monopoly of state government — owning super-majorities in both houses of the legislature, the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, and seven of nine seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The road back to power for Democrats will be long and painful. Besides fielding a credible candidate for governor against Haslam in 2014, they will need someone capable of running respectably the same year against U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, who has already declared for reelection and, in the aforementioned Vanderbilt University poll, registered an approval rating of 56 percent.


• Another decision state Democrats have to make is that of a party chairman. Chip Forrester of Nashville has decided to step down after serving two terms, and while Forrester is credited with serious efforts to upgrade the party's outreach and technological base, his tenure was shrouded from beginning to end with controversy.

Forrester was first elected in 2009 as the leader of a grass-roots faction challenging what was then the state party hierarchy, most of whom supported another candidate, Nashville lawyer Charles Robert Bone. Among those taking an active role on Bone's behalf at the time were Governor Phil Bredesen; former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., then serving as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council; and sitting congressmen Lincoln Davis, John Tanner, Bart Gordon, and Jim Cooper.

Forrester won that showdown in a convincing 43-25 vote by the state Democratic executive committee, but a long-running schism would ensue between himself and the offended party elders. Ironically, Forrester, who was reelected in 2011, outlasted the party brass who had opposed him. All except Cooper were out of office within two years, either by their own choice or that of the voters (or, in Bredesen's case, by a constitutional two-term limitation).

Yet Forrester also suffered from a gutting of the Democratic power base — most of it accomplished during the Tea Party election of 2010 — during which Republicans made dramatic gains across the breadth of Tennessee and enlarged their control of both houses of the General Assembly. Inevitably, critics charged Forrester with failure to recruit viable candidates for legislative races, though they had to acknowledge his successes in fund-raising.

As it happens, the party treasurer who helped Forrester build the party coffers during most of the outgoing chairman's tenure has been another Nashville lawyer, Dave Garrison, now a candidate to succeed Forrester and one who has strong ties with what remains of the onetime state party hierarchy. Garrison has, in fact, been endorsed by Cooper, one of only two remaining Democratic congressmen in Tennessee. (The other is Steve Cohen of Memphis' 9th District.)

In a recent email to members of the party's state executive committee, which will meet on January 26th to name a new chairman, Cooper described Garrison as a "champion of Democratic values and a capable fund-raiser." Forrester, too, has given a strong endorsement to Garrison.

Other candidates include former party communications director Wade Munday, Nashville attorney Ben Smith, and Chattanooga labor leader Jane Hampton Bowen. Both Munday and Garrison have made pilgrimages to Memphis in recent weeks, soliciting support from local executive committee members, and Smith was a prominent attendee at the recent Christmas party of the Democratic Women of Shelby County.

Whoever gets elected will have the same problem faced by Forrester and by the party's candidates for major office in the years to come: a constituency for Democrats among Tennesseans at large that is on the edge of vanishing and badly needs to be rebuilt.

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