In the most generous terms, the Tennessee Democratic Party is a fighter on the mat, just beginning to see straight after a near-knockout punch. If the arena stops spinning, they can start thinking about standing up again.
After some 150 years as the state’s dominant political party, Democrats have become a mostly marginalized minority in state politics. While party officials describe the fall as having occurred slowly over the past decade, a critical moment came in 2008. Despite Barack Obama’s historic national victory, his 15-point loss to John McCain in Tennessee bled down the ballot. Republicans, who had already seized control of the state Senate, gained four seats in the House, making Democrats a minority in both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
After losing another seat in a special election the following year, Democrats faced pivotal midterm elections, in a cycle even more ripe with anti-Obama fervor.
“There is no more important election than November of 2010,” Chip Forrester, then working his first election cycle as party chairman, said at the time. “We have a plan. … This is the most critical election cycle of our lifetime.”
And then, as Democrats can often be heard putting it now, “2010 happened.” In an election-night drubbing, Democrats lost the race for governor, 14 seats in the state House and two U.S. congressional races. And it wasn’t even that close.
After the red tide gave Republicans near supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, they flexed their newfound muscle, using the redistricting pen to further punish their opponents, as Democrats had done to them many times before. Nowadays the new minority is hoping only to “hold the line” in the legislature and stop what has been a cataclysmic slide.
Adjusting for the political cannibalism and retirement-spree forced by the redrawn state map, Forrester told The City Paper “the line” is now somewhere around 24 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, making Tennessee Democrats a minority almost as diminutive as, say, Northeastern Republicans. For example, the Republican minority in Massachusetts makes up 18 percent of the state’s legislature. If Democrats hold the line Forrester describes, they’ll make up just 24 percent of Tennessee’s.
The hole is deep, but Forrester said Democrats have a new plan. Over lunch just a few blocks from the party’s midtown offices, he laid out what’s called the New Path Forward. It’s a strategic plan, produced with the help of the Ohio-based consulting firm summoned last year to aid a political party on life support. If a Democratic resurgence is to occur any time in the next decade, party leaders say this is the roadmap.
As summarized by Forrester, it sounds like a new political business model. His presentation, replete with the type of jargon that could only come from a political strategy team, includes talk of financial stakeholders, staying on message, metrics-based campaign systems and building the party’s bench.
Some party leaders describe the plan as a return to the basics, which would seem to say something about the state of things before its inception. But it’s also intended to bring the party into the brave new era of political campaigning, inspired by Obama’s digital-era ascent.
“We’ve been doing campaigns this certain way for 10 to 15 years,” Forrester says. “If we run the campaigns in 2012 in the same way that we’ve been running them and expect a different outcome, that’s kind of the traditional definition of insanity.”
With political insanity as an alternative, the New Path has earned a fairly good reception in the opening stages of the rollout. The party recently enjoyed its best fundraising quarter on record, bringing more than $550,000 in three months, and Forrester says the aforementioned financial stakeholders — that is, donors — are very pleased with “the most detailed, goal-oriented, specific proposal they’ve ever seen.” Whatever the merits of the plan, however, that might have reflected a sense of sheer desperation in the Democratic base; it remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm can be sustained.
How did this political disaster come about? Vanderbilt political science professor and department chair John Geer believes Democrats can pin their current woes on three primary factors. The first is obvious, given the political landscape of the state.
“One, you do have a state that has become increasingly conservative and therefore it’s more fertile ground for the Republicans than the Democrats,” he told The City Paper. “That’s just true.”
Given that reality, the second follows naturally. Tennessee Democrats suffer from “the logic of the electoral college,” Geer said. Despite a recent headline on the Tennessean’s front page that declared Obama had “closed the gap” with Mitt Romney in the state — citing one portion of a new Vanderbilt poll in a way that Geer called misleading — the presidential race in Tennessee is not expected to be much of a race at all, with little chance of adding delegates to the Obama cause. As a result, the Obama campaign and the national Democratic Party have spent little time or money in the state, focusing instead on nearby “battleground” states like North Carolina and Virginia.
That means Tennessee — a state which Geer believes, citing the Vanderbilt poll, is actually more moderate than the state legislature it has elected and could produce a closer presidential race if the national party paid more attention — has essentially been ceded to the Republican candidate before the polls even open. And a top-of-the-ticket forfeiture only steepens the climb for Democrats elsewhere on the ballot.
“If you go back to The New York Times article right after the 2008 election and you look at the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, which are made up of basically the same people, North Carolina was going blue, Tennessee was going red,” Geer said. “I don’t think that was because the people differ all that much; it was because of organization. The Democratic Party invested heavily in every single county in North Carolina, and they haven’t done that in Tennessee.”
The third factor is one Geer attributes to “a set of bad luck.” After the departure of Harold Ford Jr., he said, Democrats lack “a set of visible state leaders.” A figure like outgoing state senator and Chattanooga mayoral candidate Andy Berke may be up-and-coming, but he doesn’t yet have the name recognition that’s needed, Geer said.
Democrats tout the prospect of five Democratic mayors in the state’s five largest cities — A.C. Wharton of Memphis, Karl Dean of Nashville, Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Kim McMillan of Clarksville, along with Berke, who they presume will win in Chattanooga — as a hopeful sign. But one party official lamented the hesitancy, particularly on Dean’s part, of the mayors to step forward and embrace the role.
“You bring all those things together, and it’s been a bad time for the Democrats and will probably continue to be so for a while,” Geer concluded.
Despite Democratic optimism about the New Path Forward, the firm that helped devise it seems to have agreed with Geer’s assessment. A private party memo detailing the firm’s analysis, obtained by the Associated Press in March, identified a “deep and longstanding lack of trust and mutual respect among the most significant Democratic stakeholders” and said “the window to fix these problems is closing and the situation might get worse before it gets better.”
In the meantime, elected Democrats have been and will continue to be relegated to the sidelines when it comes to most legislative matters. While iron-fisted party leaders like retiring former speaker Jimmy Naifeh had long been able to keep an array of social-conservative proposals at bay, Democrats can now do little more than try to slow such measures down before denouncing them in the media. The ultimate fate of any bill is up to Republicans, who possess the votes necessary to pass just about anything they like.
That fact was particularly evident in the recently adjourned session, during which most of the real political battles were between various factions within the Republican party. The debate over gun rights — surrounding ultimately stalled guns-in-parking-lots legislation — was not a partisan struggle, but rather an increasingly contentious argument between two conservative constituencies. Democrats will have some role in the ongoing debate about the state’s method for selecting judges, because a two-thirds vote is required next session for the remaining proposal to make it on the ballot in 2014. But even then, the process will be dominated by Republicans.
Whenever a Republican proposal failed in the legislature, it was the result of disapproval from the GOP leadership, not Democratic opposition. This was the case with the guns-in-parking-lots proposals as well as the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill. A veto from Gov. Bill Haslam is all that stopped legislation aimed at killing Vanderbilt University’s anti-discrimination policy for student organizations, a bill that Democrats vehemently opposed but could do nothing about.
Democrats did propose an alternative budget, which they argued was more responsible and more effective in using higher-than-expected state revenues, but it was ultimately ignored. The primary budget battles at session’s end were over various Republican pet projects.
Party officials told The City Paper that while fundraising from ideologically concerned donors was going strong, so-called transactional donors — specific interests and issue-oriented lobbying organizations whose political contributions are based more in self-interest than political philosophy — have been lagging. Perhaps it’s because Democrats have little to offer such interests at the moment.
In times such as these, heavy lies the head of any party leader. But Forrester has been beset by criticism since before he even took his current post. When he first ran for chairman in 2009, the party’s elected leadership, including then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, was outspoken about its lack of support for him, but the loyalty of the executive committee, on which he had served for nearly 20 years, eventually won him the chair.
The pressure only worsened after the party’s overwhelming failure in the 2010 elections. Among those calling for Forrester to step aside and forego a bid for a second term as chairman were Nashville attorney and former Metro Councilman David Briley and former party chairman and longtime executive committee member Will T. Cheek.
Nearly two years later, Briley shares the hindsight of most Democrats, describing the party’s decline as a steady slope going back a decade or more.
“There was an attempt to sort of patch the boat,” he told The City Paper. “It was leaking all along and patch, patch, patch — and all of a sudden it became clear that the boat was sunk. You gotta start building a new boat on dry land, and that’s where the party is right now.”
Asked for an update on his feelings about Forrester’s leadership, he offered something between criticism and an endorsement.
“Chip said back in 2010 that this would be his last term. So, I don’t think it’s an issue,” he said. “However, he has made some progress as chair, but we still have progress to make.”
Cheek didn’t take back his position that Forrester should have gone down with the ship in 2010 — at the time he compared him to the captain of the Titanic — but he said he supports him now and called the new plan “very reasonable” and “very logical.”
“Do I disagree with where I was right after the 2010 elections?” he said. “No. But on the other hand, I support Chip, and I support what he’s doing.”
“I never had a problem with Chip’s technical abilities,” he continued. “It was just I didn’t think he was the right person to be the leader at that time. But I never had any doubts about his skills or his technical abilities. And what you’re seeing now is him working his skills and his strengths and his abilities. He has those in considerable measure.”
Though he said he wouldn’t compare his situation to the one Obama inherited, Forrester said it’s similar in that he’s also trying to fix a situation that, he argues, was not of his making.
“I didn’t get us into this predicament — it’s been a 10-year process,” he said. “I came in at a time when we’d suffered a pretty tremendous loss, losing the House in 2008 and then the tide year. Those are just circumstances that are outside the purview of a chair, it’s just circumstances of the world that you live in.”
Whatever he may have said in 2010, Forrester declined to rule out a bid for another term. In an email, party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese relayed the chairman’s current stance.
“He’s made a personal commitment to help in whatever way best preserves and strengthens our plan to move the Democratic Party forward in Tennessee.”
Hesitant to reveal too much of the playbook, Forrester described that new plan in general terms. Along with improving cohesion between the previously mentioned “siloed and disconnected” Democratic stakeholders, it involves using a “metrics-based campaign system” and the “Democratic performance index” to identify districts and races where the chances for success are greatest. The plan, Forrester said, is to put an end to good-ol’-boy-network-based resource appropriation and instead focus on candidates who might actually have a shot.
But he said the plan also includes “base-level support” for all candidates, despite the blood-red districts in which they might be running, as part of the crucial effort to build the party’s bench.
Party officials said there’s no absolute correlation between the strength of the state party apparatus and electoral outcomes — that model would suggest that 150 years of Democratic success was the product of a significantly stronger party operation. “That’s just not true,” one official told The City Paper. However, they said, the party’s current condition does create the opportunity to start nearly from scratch and work to build an organization that can mirror the successes of the GOP over the last decade.
While Democrats largely blame their ouster on a force of political nature, their plan for resurgence depends on a phenomenon of equal force — similarly beyond their control. They’re betting on the very thing the Obama campaign is hoping to stave off: buyer’s remorse. After two legislative sessions during which Republican proposals often elicited national headlines (and sometimes mockery), they’re hoping to position themselves as the moderate adults on the Hill over the next few election cycles.
“I think [Democrats] have to get their act together, but the Republican state legislature has handed them a lot of opportunity because they push their agenda too much,” said Geer, who added that moderate Democrats will still have opportunities in the state. “One of the things the [Vanderbilt poll] says is, yes the state’s conservative but it’s not as conservative as the state legislature was.”
Briley recalls what many view as the Democrats final self-inflicted wound: the push for an income tax in a state where it is arguably banned. (Since taking control, Republicans have been pushing a constitutional amendment banning the tax again, just to make sure.)
“The Republicans are likely to overreach,” he said. “I think they’ve done that to a great degree already. And that will come back to bite them eventually. Frankly, Democrats did the same thing. They overreached.”
The plan for Democratic revival requires that they’ve stopped falling. Holding the line would be a good start.
“I think our expectations are not particularly high,” Cheek said. “I don’t think anyone is expecting the party to retake the Senate. The expectations are modest. I just hope we have bottomed out. I hope that we have.”
If they haven’t, they might find cold comfort in the fact that there can’t be much further to go.