Politics » Politics Feature

Post-Mortem, Pre-Birth

On the surface, the GOP still rules in Tennessee, but the election showed evidence of Democratic revival.

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A week and more since the election, the dust has settled, as they say, and the earth on which it rests looks, superficially, amazingly the same as it was before.

The landscape of Tennessee is still red-tinted, as it has been since the statewide elections of 2010 and 2014 and the post-census reapportionment of legislative seats, in-between. The state's two Senate seats belong to the Republicans, as does the governorship, and a GOP supermajority will still be reigning in Nashville when the General Assembly reconvenes.  

But there are clear and obvious signs of change.

Politically speaking, there are two Nashvilles. The capital city's name, used as a synecdoche for state government, or, alternatively, for the oft retrograde doings of the legislature, connotes all kinds of red-hued things. The actual city of Nashville, based on the voting habits of its electorate and the official acts of its public figures, is the most consistently blue spot in Tennessee; indeed, it is probably the last refuge on Planet Earth of the once-upon-a-time Solid Democratic South.

Scene from Weekend Rally at Civic Center Plaza - LAURA JEAN HOCKING
  • Laura Jean Hocking
  • Scene from Weekend Rally at Civic Center Plaza

Nashville is where not just blacks, who amount to 27 percent of the population, but politically ambitious whites find it worth their while to run as Democrats. Nashville's legislators are still predominantly Democratic; the Congressman representing the city, Jim Cooper, is a Democrat, and so are its mayors; former Mayors Karl Dean, this year's Democratic nominee for Governor and Phil Bredesen, the two-term Governor who carried the party's banner in the 2018 U.S. Senate race being cases in point.

The cautious Micawber-like conservatism of Bredesen was on full display in the Senate race, as it had been during his gubernatorial tenure, and it was a source of continuing annoyance to a good many Democratic activists, who bridled at their nominee's implicit and sometimes overt affinities for Trumpism, as when Bredesen, post-Senate hearings, embraced the Supreme Court candidacy of Brett Kavanaugh, or when, in a TV commercial, he seemed to relish the idea of working in tandem with the president ("a skilled negotiator") to get pharmaceutical prices down.  

While these overtures might have seemed ill-considered cave-ins to many of Bredesen's Democratic supporters, they might very well have represented the candidate's actual views. Bredesen is, after all, the governor who drastically pruned the rolls of TennCare and, in his first year in office in 2003, imposed across-the-board budget cuts of 9 percent in state spending. (By comparison, his victorious ultra-right-wing Republican opponent in 2018, Marsha Blackburn, had only demanded an 8 percent omnibus cut back then, as a state senator.)

The root fact may be that Bredesen, an import from the Northeast who made a fortune in Nashville as a health-care entrepreneur, is, politically, the exception who proves the rule about Nashville — someone who, upon entering politics, branded himself a Democrat because that was the "right" label for someone running for office in Nashville.

Whatever the case, Bredesen got 71 percent of the votes this year in Nashville as compared to 66 percent in Memphis. The rest of the state went for Blackburn by a 70 to 30 ratio, percentage-wise.

It is difficult to imagine James Mackler, the youngish Nashville lawyer and Iraq War vet who was talked into bowing out of the race to accommodate Bredesen's race, doing much worse, statewide. And the progressive ideas Mackler unfolded during his brief candidacy might well have proved as rousing as Beto O'Rourke's similar approach did in Texas, making the Lone Star congressman's race there a close-run thing and elevating him into national prominence. We'll never know. It was assumed, probably correctly, that only Bredesen could raise the requisite amount of cash for a competitive statewide race in Tennessee.

Similar reasoning underlay the nice-try but no-cigar race by Karl Dean against the GOP's new-look gubernatorial winner, Bill Lee.

The state Democratic Party, incidentally, did what it could financially to augment several of the legislative races in play on last week's ballot, including races mounted in Shelby County's most suburban corners against long-term Republicans thought to have an unbreakable hold on power.

There was Gabby Salinas, the Bolivian-born cancer survivor and research scientist who, running as a Democrat, pleaded the cause of Medicaid expansion against its chief antagonist, the supposedly entrenched Republican state senator and state Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey, in District 31, a sprawling land mass extending from Midtown and East Memphis into the suburban hinterland of Bartlett, Germantown, and Collierville. Gabby, as she was everywhere known, came within 2 percent of ousting Kelsey, who squeaked out a win of 40,313 to 38,793.

Democrat Danielle Schonbaum made things look relatively close in her contest with the veteran Mark White in House District 83, another East Memphis-Germantown-Collierville amalgam where she polled 11,336 votes to White's 15,129. Even closer was fellow Democratic newcomer Allan Creasy, who won 10,073 votes against incumbent Jim Coley's 12,298 in District 97, a somewhat gerrymandered slice of Bartlett and Eads.

And, of course, there was District 96 (Cordova, Germantown), where Democrat Dwayne Thompson, who managed to upset Republican incumbent Steve McManus in the Trump year of 2016, expanded his margin of victory from 14,710 to 10,493 over Republican warhorse Scott McCormick in a reelection bid.

If those outcomes on the suburban rim look familiar, they are the contemporary Democratic equivalents of the kinds of gains Republicans made in the period of the GOP's ascendancy, beginning in the late 1960s. Just as the GOP did in its rise to power, the refurbished Democratic Party, led by Corey Strong, made a point of challenging every available position, an effort that Republicans could not or would not match.

Unmistakably, Shelby County's Democratic totals were swelled enormously by the African-American voters who are the essence of the party's base here. But this year the effort made by white Democrats, focused in the Germantown Democratic Party, whose president Dave Cambron doubled as the party's chief recruiter of candidates, and by millennial-dominated groups like Indivisible and Future 90 and new leaders, like Emily Fulmer, was intensified to a point of fever pitch.

Fulmer and others were galvanized into action again on Saturday, in a rally on Civic Center Plaza of hundreds who braved cold weather to protest the prospect of a post-election move against the Robert Mueller investigation by President Trump.

Unmistakably, Democratic sentiment in Memphis and Shelby County is again on the rise, after a decade or two of slumber.

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