Democratic Dreaming 

A statewide political reclamation could be in the offing

A statewide political reclamation could be in the offing

The wail from the state’s media and would-be election handicappers has been loud and long recently as they collectively have tolled the bell for the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Since November, all the familiar losses of the once dominant Democrats have been recounted and picked clean by the local punditry as the burnt-out hulk of “native son” Al Gore’s presidential hopes lingers like a resentful specter.

The party has not held a statewide seat since the early 1990s, and the pressure of what leading Democrats call a “must win” gubernatorial race is becoming palpable. Yet, outside the milieu of the local talk shows, those who run campaigns and study elections for a living are hopeful that Tennessee again will take the national political stage in 2002, with Democrats possibly recapturing some former glory.

“The conventional wisdom nationally among Democrats, Republicans, and people who follow politics in Tennessee is that Tennessee has gone Republican,” says Democratic campaign consultant John Rowley. “That’s a myth.”

Well, it’s not exactly a myth, as there are the undebatable matters of a Republican governor, two GOP senators, and a Republican majority in Tennessee’s congressional delegation. But Rowley—Nashville Democratic consultant Bill Fletcher’s quieter partner—looks at the swing in Tennessee toward electing Republicans and Gore’s 2000 loss here not necessarily as a societal change, but as a series of poor moves on the political chess board.

“Bush won here not because of some tidal wave, but because of how the campaigns played out,” Rowley insists. “There have been some bad campaigns here. Sometimes, Republicans just run better campaigns.”

Looking several moves down that chess board, 2002 could be fertile ground for Democrats to reclaim some statewide head count. While Republicans have been consumed with the strategic advantage of their consensus gubernatorial candidate, there has been little talk of a GOP replacement for 4th District congressman-turned-gubernatorial-candidate Van Hilleary’s seat.

Having an open seat in 2002 means a shot for Democrats to recapture the majority of the state’s congressional spots. The count now sits at five to four in favor of the GOP, with conservative Democratic state Sen. Lincoln Davis already working toward a 4th District bid.

Hilleary, meanwhile, has been campaigning for the governor’s job almost since his first election win in 1994, buying major-market television air time each cycle to reach his rural constituents. Despite that effort, his statewide schedule, and his congressional position, Hilleary trailed former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, now running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, 37 percent to 40 percent in a recent Mason-Dixon poll. Bredesen has not courted voters statewide since his failed 1994 gubernatorial bid, but nevertheless has both political and financial advantages in the upcoming election.

These angles and GOP Sen. Fred Thompson’s continuing ambivalence about his own political future—namely, that he’s not sure he’ll run for reelection next year—are not lost on professional political observers outside Tennessee.

Chuck Todd, managing editor of The Hotline, Washington, D.C.’s daily online bible of politics, sees a state potentially in flux with Thompson waffling on reelection and a definite trend in the South toward Democratic governors. “Especially if Fred Thompson retires, I think you will see a chance for Democrats to revive themselves in Tennessee...,” Todd says. “Democrats, to their credit, have done well in the South. Pretty much every state surrounding Tennessee has a Democratic governor.”

Todd, Rowley, and others expect 2002 to see the state’s gubernatorial, 4th District, and U.S. Senate contests elevated to “national race” status—where both national parties pour in resources and money.

And that could mean a Gore/Bush rematch—of sorts.

“I think Bush definitely comes to Tennessee,” Todd says. “He can’t afford to lose that state.... There is no doubt [Bush] will be spending political time and capital in Tennessee.”

“I wouldn’t be shocked at all,” Rowley says of Bush campaigning for Hilleary and others. “The feather in their cap was winning Tennessee. They view that as salt in the wound to the Democrats nationally.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe hopes Bush comes to Tennessee. And, he says, Gore may be here to greet him. “I would like to pay for his Air Force One travel,” McAuliffe says. “[Bush] is a great advertisement for the Democratic Party.”

Amid repeated references to Gore’s loss here that quite literally cost him the presidency, McAuliffe told a room of party insiders and reporters at last weekend’s Democratic Jackson Day Dinner that winning in Tennessee was important for the party to “send a national message.” State party Chairman Bill Farmer also made cryptic references to a “project” in the fall involving Gore and the state’s congressional members.

“[Gore] told me he would be back out helping the party by September...,” McAuliffe told last weekend’s audience. “He said he wanted to take the summer off.”

GOP consultants are dutifully skeptical of a Democratic comeback in the state, but concede Tennessee will get national attention. Brad Todd, a national GOP consultant working with Hilleary’s campaign, points to Tennessee’s demographic and geographic similarities to Virginia—now controlled by Republicans.

“Obviously, Democrats still control many levels of power in Tennessee,” Todd says. “They’re not dead. They are just on the wrong side of the issues for many Tennesseans.”

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