When voters consign political parties to minority status, circular firing squads usually follow. But Tennessee Democratic leaders and campaign operatives aren't blaming each other for the party's stunning losses in last week's legislative elections. They're blaming racism.
Barack Obama changed the political map with the biggest Democratic victory since LBJ, but the election made a different kind of history in the alternate universe known as Tennessee. John McCain not only won the state by 15 points, he took some rural counties by 40 points or more, and those mind-boggling margins poured down the ballot to give Republicans majorities in both houses of the legislature for the first time in 140 years.
"I really think racism is what it was," one Democratic insider tells the Scene. "Obama just got killed in a lot of these rural counties. It seems pretty obvious that a lot of these people came out to vote against the black guy, and while they were at it, they voted for Republicans on down the ballot."
The winds of change were blowing across America on Election Day. In Tennessee, the breeze of stagnation was the best Democrats could hope for.
No one expected Obama to win the state or even come close. From the start, he put Democratic legislative candidates in a tight fix by ignoring Tennessee. Still, Democrats were counting on Obama doing at least as well as John Kerry four years ago. That would have been good enough to stop down-ballot Republicans from piggybacking to victories in the legislature.
Yet Democrats were taken aback by the enormity of Obama's defeat, which dwarfed Kerry's in rural areas where the party narrowly lost legislative seats.
Rural white voters rejected Obama's candidacy so resoundingly that the color of his skin is the only logical explanation, according to these Democrats. (Naturally, they all requested anonymity.)
They say the state GOP cynically fueled "the Obama fear factor" with Internet ads and press releases tarring him as a kind of Muslim Manchurian candidate.
"The Republican Party was very aggressive about letting people know all the smears about Obama, and their strategy was obviously to drive up the Obama fear factor and hope that it moved down the ticket," one says.
"I do think race played a role in it," adds another. "Particularly in some of the rural areas, an African American running is difficult."
Even Republicans admit they were surprised by the severity of McCain's win. Republicans captured eight legislative seats in 27 mostly rural counties where McCain beat Obama by 32 points. President Bush won those same counties over Kerry by 24 points in 2004. McCain won one six-county Senate district in northeastern Tennessee by 43 points.
A comparison with votes for Kerry is eyebrow-raising to be sure. As a wind-surfing Massachusetts liberal, he wasn't exactly a popular guy here. He came to Tennessee only once in 2004, and that was for a midnight airport rally near the end of the campaign. Yet he still managed to win 18 counties.
Obama, meanwhile, won six. He was walloped even in the yellow-dog Democrat counties of the Cumberland Plateau that Kerry won. Consider these four counties:
Clay: Kerry 50%, Obama 42%
Overton: Kerry 53%, Obama 42%
Smith: Kerry 52%, Obama 39%
Trousdale: Kerry 58% Obama 46%
Obama took nearby Jackson County, but only narrowly, with 50 percent of the vote. Kerry won 59 percent there. Jackson County Mayor Charlie Hix thinks Obama's race mattered.
"In Jackson, it used to be two-thirds would vote Democrat," Hix says. "We've had some new people move in and that's part of where the Republicans come in. And then some didn't want to vote for a black."
Exit polls seem to bear out this thesis. Twenty-seven percent of Tennesseans admitted race was a factor in how they voted, with 16 percent calling it important. Nationally, 19 percent said they considered race and only 9 percent called it important.
But if literally tens of thousands of rural white Tennesseans are so racist they won't vote for a black candidate—even if he is making the rest of the country go ga-ga—then how do you explain Harold Ford Jr.'s much-better showing in the 2006 Senate race? He far outperformed Obama in Jackson (64 percent to Obama's 50), Clay (57 to 42), Overton (59 to 42), Smith (57 to 39) and Trousdale (64 to 46).
It's simple, Democrats say. Ford campaigned here really hard. Tennesseans might be racist, but not so racist that they won't vote for an African American who asks nicely. (Now there's a silver lining!) Plus, Ford ran like a Republican, while Obama has a funny name.
"Junior was everywhere," one Democrat explains. "He talked about his guns and his God. He became one of the Bubbas because he was with them so much. It's hard to hate someone you know. Obama was unknown."
Racism aside, Tennessee Democrats make a compelling argument when they complain about the inherent difficulty of presidential years. In the past two White House races, the Democratic candidate has made a grand total of two visits to Tennessee. Obama only came because the debate commission chose Belmont University as a site.
GOP chair Robin Smith credits McCain's election eve trip to the Tri-Cities with goosing turnout enough to put at least three Republican legislative candidates over the top. McCain went there only because the airport is closest to southwest Virginia, where he needed to campaign. Just the same, it underscores the importance in state elections of even a single, accidental visit by a presidential candidate.
Democrats can't complain too loudly about Obama's absence. Gov. Phil Bredesen actually advised him to stay out of Tennessee and bad-mouthed him, too. The guy who wound up winning more votes than anyone else in U.S. history didn't know how to connect with Wal-Mart shoppers, Bredesen lectured him.
OK, that was a boneheaded move. But the point remains the same: "Our presidential candidates don't give Tennesseans an indication that we care about them, and that goes down the ticket," one Democrat says.
What's a Tennessee Democrat to do? The problem with the above analysis, correct as it may be, is this: While it conveniently absolves the state party from any responsibility for what's happened, it also offers no path back to respectability.
For the first time since the Civil War era, Republicans run both the state House and Senate. That could put them in control of 2010 redistricting. Once the gerrymandering is finished, two Democratic congressmen—Lincoln Davis and Bart Gordon—could have quite a few more Republican constituents to serve, and who knows how many Democratic state lawmakers might wake up in newly drawn GOP districts?
Things are likely to get much worse for the Democrats, if that's possible. Republicans already hold both Senate seats, and it looks at this point like the party will take back the governorship in 2010. Bill Frist, who seems an even likelier candidate now that the GOP owns the legislature, would start as the heavy favorite against any Democrat who might run. Frist's candidacy would allow Republicans to consolidate their legislative gains and perhaps take new seats.
And who will run for the Democrats? The GOP boasts a deep bench—Zach Wamp, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Haslam are among the candidates in waiting. Ford, who carries some seriously heavy family baggage, is probably the best the Democrats could offer. Anyone else? Let's see, er, how about Kim McMillan and Lincoln Davis? Please. For the once-proud party of Andrew Jackson, it's like a really bad joke.
Finding serious statewide candidates is at the top of a long to-do list for the party. While Democrats were knocking off Elizabeth Dole and nearly beating Mitch McConnell in neighboring states, Sen. Lamar Alexander was winning 65 percent of the vote against the unknown Bob Tuke. A strong challenger would have helped offset McCain's popularity for down-ballot Democrats and might have enticed Obama to unload some of his cash in this state.
Do Democrats also need a better message? For decades, they've offered a Republican Lite version of the God-and-guns mantra. Voters seem to prefer the real thing.
As state GOP flack Bill Hobbs points out: "McCain's numbers were strong in counties where the GOP won legislative seats because the Republican message from McCain to the bottom of the ticket in Tennessee was consistent and clear. By contrast, the Democrat message from Obama to the bottom of the ticket was a jumbled mess. Democrats were asking voters in Tennessee to vote for Obama and then vote for Democrats who wouldn't even endorse Obama. The Tennessee Democrat Party was in the unfortunate position of trying to sell to conservative rural Democrats an extremely liberal presidential candidate tailor-made to appeal to urban liberals."
Democrats could focus more on bread-and-butter social issues. But they're afraid of coming across as liberal. It's time for them to hold hands, sing campfire songs and figure out what they believe in.
At the moment, party leaders are a little too shell-shocked to talk about the future.
"I think we do a real serious post-mortem of all legislative races," says Chip Forrester, the Nashville activist who's already running to replace Gray Sasser as party chair. "We don't know yet what our mistakes were. Once we do, it's a lot easier to start fixing them."
There's good news for Democrats, believe it or not. As Republicans take charge, the state budget is melting down. The governor revealed this week that the shortfall could mount to $800 million. Serious cuts in services are unavoidable. Republicans have howled forever about wasteful state spending. Now's their chance to find it. Unfortunately for them, almost all of spending goes for prisons, education and health care. They can't let criminals go free. That means they'll have to cut college funding and toss sick people to the wolves. That's not usually the way to endear yourself to voters.
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