The race for the Democratic nomination for the 21st state Senate District in Davidson County was still undecided by the end of election night. With regular and early voting ballots at a two-vote margin — 33-year-old candidate Jeff Yarbro at 5,639 to 10-term incumbent Sen. Douglas Henry at 5,641 — the result will come down to a provisional ballot count, set to be finished Friday, according to Davidson County Elections Administrator Ray Barrett.
Whatever Friday’s results, state law allows a candidate to demand a recount within five days of an election. He can also challenge the result before the state Democratic Party's executive committee.
In such a tight race, a recount seems inevitable.
“We’re going to make sure all the votes are counted. We look forward to doing that,” Yarbro said at 10:30 p.m. Thursday night when asked if he’ll challenge an election win. “We’re getting a lot of mixed reports. There have been a couple of different numbers coming in just in the last few minutes.”
Yarbro had just told supporters at his election party in Green Hills that the race was still undecided. Meanwhile, at Henry’s campaign headquarters two blocks away, the message was less ambiguous, if not entirely accurate.
Inside Henry headquarters, the mood was flat until about 10 p.m., when a supporter with a cell phone announced that there would be a message from campaign manager Nick Bailey, who was offsite. She paused, listening, and then: “We won by two votes.”
“I’m very pleased. I’ll be happy when the vote is certified,” Henry said after the announcement. “It’s encouraging to be ahead by any amount. Two votes — that’ll do if it sticks.”
Henry later acknowledged that the vote remained uncertified and a recount was still possible, but then he turned away from reporters and joined with his supporters for a verse of “Happy Days are Here Again.”
Yarbro said he hadn’t heard about the “victory” celebration at Henry’s place, and he hadn’t yet had a chance to speak to the incumbent.
Close race came as a surprise
To Jeff Wilson, a Yarbro supporter who ran against Henry in 2002 and got 39 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, the fact that no one could predict the result was itself a sort of victory for his challenger. Henry, who is above all a highly respected 10-term incumbent and a pre-eminent Democratic Party insider, is also an intimidating fundraiser, far outpacing and outspending his last two challengers.
“To give you some numbers, I raised about $45,000,” Wilson said in an interview Thursday, before the polls closed. By that primary, Henry, on the other hand, was at around $220,000 in contributions, plus $30,000 from his own pocket. “And I got 40 percent of the vote,” Wilson said.
In 2006, the financial disparity was even more striking. By the time he lost the primary with 25 percent of the vote, Henry’s opponent Gary Pennington had raised only $1,250.
Yarbro, who announced his campaign in September 2009, has managed to surpass Henry’s fundraising efforts, coming into the primary with nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions. Henry, who has loaned himself $300,000, has about $200,000 in contributions.
But bloated campaign coffers, useful as they were, and savvy campaigning don’t fully explain this possible upset, said Bruce Oppenheimer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University. This was, or at least was successfully framed as, an ideological race.
“It’s clear that Henry’s looked on as the more conservative Democrat, where Yarbro is seen as more moderate to liberal,” he said. “That’s the perception, I think.”
Indeed, despite some strong left-wing indicators in Henry’s voting record — no on guns in bars, no on English-only driver’s licenses, no on a bill requiring jailers to check the immigration status of everyone they arrest, no on delaying the Voter Confidence Act — Yarbro’s attacks tended to focus on Henry’s voting record supporting pro-life efforts, his initial support of a bill that would challenge the constitutionality of the new federal health care law, and his no vote on a bill that would ban mountaintop mining.
First, there was the backdrop: an ever-more conservative (perhaps even reactionary) Republican-led legislature, a state Democratic Party often derided for supporting middle-of-the-road to conservative candidates. Plus the locale, what Oppenheimer characterized as a younger, increasingly left-wing Davidson County, and we have a race wherein the candidates were actually touting their liberal cred — a big difference from, say, the gubernatorial race.
“It’s not surprising,” Oppenheimer said. “One reason that Henry’s been able to thrive in this district is the support he’s gotten from moderate Republicans. You can always count on a number of high-income moderate Republicans in Davidson County. But I think the makeup of the district has changed, and people are more frustrated with that, and Yarbro took advantage of it.”
It’s simply the district, he said, and however the election turns out, it shouldn’t be seen as a resurgence or death knell for liberals in the Democratic Party.