It's 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and a dozen sleepyheads sit inside a union hall on the gritty outskirts of Antioch. They sip coffee, nibble doughnuts and stare vacantly into space. They don't know it yet, but they are the front lines of a historically important political campaign.
"Good morning!" cries Chip Forrester, the exuberant chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
He strides to the front of the room and looks out proudly over his fine new recruits — the latest group to join what he hopes will grow into an army of never-say-die activists. Mostly young people, they are here because they want to become involved, but they are clueless at this point about exactly what that might entail.
"We're going to build our party from the grass-roots up, creating connected, committed Democrats who can participate as boots on the ground in this next election cycle," Forrester says. "And that's who you are."
His would-be warriors blink quizzically.
This is one of the party's S.O.S. meetings. No, that doesn't stand for Same Old Shit. It's Save Our State (from the wacked-out Republicans, it goes without saying). Boot camps for campaign volunteers, these sessions have been held across the state since Forrester became chairman 18 months ago. Party officials teach their new activists how to organize the door-knocking and phone-banking that can make the difference in any political campaign.
"There is no more important election than November of 2010," Forrester declares. "We have a plan. You are a big part of that plan. This is the most critical election cycle of our lifetime."
To try to rev up their troops, politicians of all stripes give the same exhortation before every election. For once, it actually may be an understatement. The dominant power in state politics for 150 years, Democrats now are unquestionably on the edge of obsolescence, like some pathetic species of vanishing wildlife. This election could decide whether they survive as major players, or wither away into the nearly irrelevant second-tier status of the party in most other Southern states.
The governor's race may be attracting most of the media's attention. But in-the-know Democrats are focused intensely on a handful of obscure, down-ballot races for the state House of Representatives. These elections — featuring unheralded candidates from the Tennessee hinterlands, most of whom never before have run for political office — have become the be-all and end-all for this once-proud party of Andrew Jackson.
Inundated by a wave of anti-Obama voters, Democrats found themselves in the minority of both houses of the legislature in 2008 for the first time since Civil War Reconstruction. Already in commanding control of the Senate, Republicans stunned Democrats by gaining four House seats to grab a razor-thin advantage in the lower chamber too.
For Democrats, what happens next — that is, unless they take back the House this fall — is almost too painful to contemplate. With each new census every decade, legislatures across the country redraw their state's political borders. If Republicans are in control when the Tennessee legislature creates a redistricting plan next year, they will do to the Democrats exactly what the Democrats always did to them: They will gerrymander their opponents into political Siberia. A half-dozen or more Democratic House incumbents suddenly will find themselves living in new, unfriendly legislative districts and facing almost certain defeat in the next elections. The GOP's majorities in both the House and Senate will become an impenetrable fortress, and Republicans will own one or two more congressional seats at least for the next 10 years.
Interviews with party officials, operatives and activists suggest Democrats are hopeful but clear-eyed about their prospects. They are tantalizingly close — a net pickup of only two seats puts the party back on top in the House and staves off oblivion. But the political environment this year for Democrats, especially in Tennessee, makes even that unlikely. If Democrats fail in November, "then we go into the wilderness for a while," admits Nashville's Will Cheek, a former party chairman and longtime executive committee member.
"Our troops are not what you'd call 'lit up,' " he adds. "But it can't be as bad as it looks now. It can't get worse than this. There's no way. It just cannot. So I'm positive."
To know how Democrats wound up in such a tight spot is to understand why they aren't likely to wiggle out of it. To be sure, many of their wounds are self-inflicted. These are Democrats, aren't they? But with justification, they also can blame a phenomenon beyond their control.
Barack Obama saved Democrats nationally, sweeping into the White House in '08 in the party's biggest victory since LBJ. But in large part, he has been the undoing of Democrats in Tennessee. John McCain not only won Tennessee by 15 points, he took some rural counties by 40 points or more. Those mind-blowing margins poured down the ballot to give Republicans just enough votes to capture just enough House seats to shove Democrats into minority status.
Democrats felt ambushed by the enormity of Obama's defeat here. John Kerry, a wind-surfing Massachusetts liberal, did better in '04. Republicans captured eight state House and Senate seats in 27 mostly rural counties where McCain beat Obama by 32 points. President Bush won those same counties over Kerry by 24 points. McCain won one six-county Senate district in northeastern Tennessee by 43 points.
No one expected Obama to win the state or even come close. He wrote off Tennessee from the beginning and ignored it. But so did Kerry four years earlier. If Obama had done even as well as Kerry in Tennessee, that would have been good enough to prevent some of the party's legislative losses. Republicans won five House seats by only hundreds of votes.
To many Democrats, the color of Obama's skin was the only logical explanation for the overwhelming rejection of his candidacy by rural white voters. Indeed, the state GOP under chairwoman Robin Smith and her bombastic flack Bill Hobbs cynically fueled the electorate's racist feelings with mailings and press releases tarring Obama as a radical friend of Muslims.
"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 Democratic insider told the Scene at the time.
The Obama Fear Factor weighs heavily on the state's Democrats again this year. True, Obama isn't running this time, but Republicans will try hard to turn state elections into referendums on the president's policies. Political prognosticators see nightmare scenarios for Democrats all over the country — even in places where the party was triumphant in '08. It's not unthinkable that the GOP could regain control of one or both houses of Congress.
To expect Democrats to do better in Tennessee defies common sense. If anything, Obama is more unpopular here now than he was in '08.
A surprising number of Tennesseans believe the ravings of the anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. An MTSU poll last year showed 34 percent think it's probably or definitely true that the president was born in another country, and 30 percent think it's at least likely that he's a Muslim. Another 35 percent think he might try to take away our guns, and 46 percent think it's probably or definitely true that he's a socialist.
"Democrats in Tennessee have plenty to worry about," MTSU pollster Ken Blake says, rattling off the numbers that paint the party's bleak picture.
Obama's approval rating in Tennessee somehow managed to edge up just over 50 percent right after his inauguration, Blake says, "but the honeymoon ended quickly." By this past spring, only 42 percent of Tennesseans approved of Obama.
"Perhaps more significantly," Blake says, "Obama seems to have lost substantial ground among Tennessee's independent voters" with only 35 percent now approving.
Compounding the Democrats' woes is a largely overlooked handicap. The party's less-affluent constituencies vote at lower rates in midterm elections when there's no presidential race to make things interesting.
In 1994, the year of the Angry White Man, revved-up Republicans overwhelmed depressed Democrats at the polls and swept to power in Washington. In Tennessee, it was the end of Democratic dominance — all three statewide races fell to Republicans. That was the first midterm of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and Tennessee was outraged over HillaryCare. It's an eerily familiar political landscape — except Bubba may have enjoyed more popularity in '94 in Tennessee than Obama does now.
David Harper, the party's Middle Tennessee regional vice chairman, holds out hope for an economic upswing to blunt some of the antipathy toward Obama and improve Democrats' prospects this fall. But he acknowledges the party is fighting deeply held racist attitudes among white voters.
"My wife and I were just talking about it this morning," says Harper, a retired business executive in Hartsville. "We lost longtime friends over the fact that we voted for an N-word. OK? I'm not going to say what they really say. We live in the woods out here and you cannot imagine how bad it is. They still refer to Martin Luther King Day as the N-day. They are just very belligerent about it. It's unfortunate. I don't think we're going to be able to change that real quick."
"It's out there," agrees another party executive committee member, Dennis Gregg of Crossville. "I'll tell you one comment I heard during the '08 election from a longtime Democrat. She just said she couldn't stand the idea of Michelle Obama as the first lady. That was just offensive to her, the idea that there's a black woman in charge of the White House. So it's out there, and that was from a Democrat."
Democrats are crossing their fingers for Republicans to rip themselves apart in an ideological fight to the finish between the Tea Party crowd and more moderate elements. In the governor's race, Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey seem willing to accommodate. They've been bitch-slapping the GOP's likely nominee, Bill Haslam, as squishy on guns and taxes for more than a year — and their primary's still six weeks away.
Democrats dream of a Wamp nomination like lollipops and Christmas puppies. If Kentucky voters were appalled to meet the real Rand Paul after his Senate primary victory, wait'll Tennessee clues in to Wamp — a little dynamo of a right-winger who boasts of sleeping with a gun and constantly threatens to meet Obama at the border to defend Tennessee against various nonexistent threats from the guvmint. At a Tea Party convention in Gatlinburg this summer, Wamp cranked up the crazy to an ear-piercing screech. Channeling Pat Robertson, he declared that God blessed the economy of his hometown of Chattanooga for keeping abortion clinics out of the city.
The problem for Democrats is that they might be too clueless and dysfunctional to capitalize.
The only Democrat remaining in the governor's race, Mike McWherter, seems distracted and laconic. "I had a really nice life up until I got into this campaign," he sighs during an interview in a windowless room in his campaign headquarters near the state Capitol. His aides chuckle, but it's not clear whether he's joking.
While Haslam, Wamp and Ramsey have been piling up formidable sums of campaign cash from excited constituencies, McWherter raised only a little more than $100,000 in the first three months of the year — a paltry amount that seriously damaged the credibility of his candidacy with insiders.
Perhaps for this reason, some pundits already have written off McWherter, the son of Ned, who was the governor from 1986-94 at the height of party power when 65 percent of the legislature was Democratic.
Lamely, McWherter insists his poor fundraising was all part of some grand campaign design. He knew exactly what he was doing. He made a conscious decision to attend meet 'n' greets around the state rather than asking for money. Of course he did.
"One of our big goals was to make sure I visited all 95 counties," he says. "That was our focus, frankly. That's what we did. We're right back on track now, and I feel real good we'll be able to raise the money we need to get out our message."
What exactly is McWherter's message? Well, it's a little thin at this point. Except for a few nuances on social issues — he's for guns in restaurants that serve alcohol but not for guns in honky-tonks; he's against gay adoption but he wouldn't push legislation to outlaw it — McWherter's stated views are virtually indistinguishable from his most conservative GOP rivals. His only outright proposal has been a vague promise to give unspecified tax breaks to businesses that create an unspecified number of jobs.
"I'm running on a campaign talking about economic development and jobs," he says. "That's a message most Tennesseans want to hear right now. That's what they're focused on. If the Republicans want to run like me, I'll have to let them do it."
Positioning yourself as a conservative, as McWherter is doing, is the time-honored Rule No. 1 of the Tennessee Democratic playbook. It's the way of Ned McWherter, Al Gore, Harold Ford, Jim Cooper and all the successful Democratic politicians of modern times in this state. In their minds, it's smart politics to disarm Republicans, even if it does lull to sleep your own supporters and make people wonder why Tennessee bothers with the two-party system.
Critics say Tennessee Democrats have feigned conservatism so long they've forgotten what Democrats are supposed to stand for, raising existential questions. If the party simply disbanded in this state, what exactly would we lose? At a time of economic crisis when Tennessee stands at a crossroads — this way to a modern progressive state, that way to Mississippi — Democrats are failing to offer an alternative point of view, a reason to give them the levers of power. Put another way: When Democrats run as Republicans, voters apparently prefer the real thing.
After their humiliating '08 debacle, Democrats threw themselves pell-mell into intra-party squabbling. Four Democratic congressmen and Gov. Phil Bredesen worked to defeat Forrester as party chairman, backing another candidate, Charles Robert Bone, the son of a major money guy. The party's executive committee defied them by choosing Forrester anyway. After that, elected officials pouted for months and refused to meet with Forrester.
Bredesen undercut Forrester's handpicked treasurer, Nashville developer Bill Freeman, for whom the governor harbored an ancient grudge over a long forgotten dispute. Bredesen went so far as to direct contributors not to give to the party, forcing Freeman to resign.
The party's first test under the new chairman was a special election last October. Even in a historically Democratic House district with the resigning incumbent's brother as their standard-bearer — a likable, down-to-earth guy with the magical name of Ty Cobb — Democrats weren't just beaten, they were trounced. The GOP candidate, Shelbyville trucking company owner Pat Marsh, shocked Democrats by winning 56 percent of the vote.
That election took on outsized importance because of the closeness of the House's partisan makeup. It gave Republicans a 51-48 advantage, making it that much harder for Democrats to retake the House this fall.
Is that all the bad news for Democrats? Not hardly. Two of the longtime congressmen who opposed Forrester — John Tanner and Bart Gordon — later showed how much they cared about the party by retiring rather than running in tough re-election campaigns. Odds are Democrats will lose both U.S. House seats, and with them their 5-4 advantage in the Tennessee congressional delegation — their last little scrap of respectability.
"Tennessee is now the place where Democrat congressional candidacies go to die," boasted Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Gordon admitted he feared that, even if he won this year, he'd lose in 2012 given the likelihood that the GOP will retain control of the legislature and redraw his district to add tens of thousands more Republicans. So he was not only unwilling to fight to keep his seat, he had the gall to give a vote of no confidence on his way out the door to Democrats hoping to take back the state House.
The surprise announcements, coming in a single month, angered Democrats who felt the congressmen were deserting their beleaguered party in its time of need.
"I figure he said, 'Screw it. Hell, I've served my 13 terms in Congress. It's time for me to sit back and relax and enjoy my time with my kids and my wife,' " one Democratic insider said of Gordon. "It shocked me when I got the call this morning. ... It's got me a little discombobulated. I'm here trying to fight the good fight, and all the people I thought I looked up to are starting to say, 'To hell with it, we're done.' "
In the legislature, rather than proving to voters they deserve to return to power, Democrats went promptly into Keystone Kops mode. Over cocktails with a reporter in Memphis, House leader Gary Odom was overwhelmed by a case of loose lips, and his out-of-school criticism of Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh — which quickly found its way into print — enraged the entire Democratic caucus. Lawmakers forced Odom to apologize, and for much of the rest of the 106th General Assembly he was a mere spectator — meek and mostly silent.
Those wacky Republicans helpfully played to stereotype as they took control of the legislature. To Democrats, it must have seemed like a terrifying invasion of alien life forms — only instead of bizarre googly-eyed creatures with spidery legs, there were Obama birthers, Tea Party frothers, gun freaks, and all the rest of that far-out gang of right-wing loons. For years, they were laughable, mere objects of ridicule. Now they were running the show.
Yet in a spectacular failure to communicate, the House Democratic Caucus this year didn't hold a single news conference or produce even one lousy press release assailing these kooks (or promoting any real agenda of their own, for that matter). Democrats suffered in silence. Had they called out the Republicans, they might have brought attention to their own dirty little secret: Many House Democrats are voting with Republicans on nearly every issue.
Only 29 of the 48 House Democrats voted against allowing handgun carry permit holders to carry loaded firearms into bars. Only 21 voted against the new GOP majority's signature achievement — a resolution to strip abortion rights from the state constitution. Sixteen voted for a resolution praising Arizona for its new anti-immigration law that caused a national uproar.
The governor, who could have stepped into this leadership vacuum, pointedly has declined to help draw contrasts in the minds of voters between his party and Republicans, even as his party's grasp on power slipped away. Inexplicably, he kept silent as this year's session dragged on meaninglessly two months past the original goal for adjournment. At an availability with Bredesen the day the session finally sputtered to a stop at nearly 2 o'clock in the morning, he agreed the legislature's goofy gauge was registering "very high this year," but didn't blame Republicans more than Democrats.
"I don't think it was all that different," he said nonchalantly of the first two years of Republican rule in the legislature.
Says one disgruntled Democratic fundraiser: "The only thing Phil Bredesen cares about is Phil Bredesen."
It's against this backdrop that Chip Forrester tries to work a miracle. Tennessee Democrats are like fairies; not many people believe in them anymore. Forrester is Peter Pan desperately clapping his hands to try to keep Tinker Bell from dying.
Some in the party establishment see Forrester as a flaky troublemaker. He wears wire-rim spectacles like some kind of East Coast elitist. (He used to wear bow ties too, but he lost the neckwear after rural House Democrats told him he looked like a wuss.)
He won election as chairman because of his long association with the 66-member executive committee — he has belonged himself since 1988. The committee is filled with liberal activists, and Forrester is their champion. When he was elected two months after the '08 elections, he filled the House gallery with sign-waving supporters. Obama's victory stirred them up. The party's elected leaders think it's crazy, but liberals have this idea that Democrats might win more elections if they stay true to their core beliefs and stop pretending to be Republicans.
Taking a page from Obama's winning campaign playbook, Forrester is passionate about organizing and courting new activists who haven't participated in politics in the past. He promises to rebuild the party from the precinct level up, which is the goal of his S.O.S. meetings.
"We need to stop talking about organizing and actually begin doing it," Forrester says.
He formed an unlikely alliance with Rep. Mike Turner, the burly, plain-spoken Old Hickory firefighter who is chairman of the House Democratic political caucus. Together, they recruited what they're calling the best class of Democratic candidates ever to run for the House in this state. That's hyperbole, of course, but you have to admire their spunk. There's the small-town mayor Billy Paul Carneal; there's also the son of somebody who used to be one of Al Gore's closest confidantes. There's a young lawyer whose daddy is rich, and then there's this guy named Keith Clotfelter, a really great salesman of manufactured homes. Forrester and Turner ballyhoo these candidates as a can't-miss collection of little Davy Crocketts.
Turner admits "we need to act like Democrats and not like part-time Republicans." But he doesn't completely buy what the party's liberal activists are saying about running unashamedly as real Democrats. It's great to give voters a clear choice, he says, but "let's face it — Tennessee is a conservative state, and in a lot of these districts, it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat. Sometimes it gets down to who's the most well-liked. You have to try to find people who look like their district."
So Turner's not vouching for the viewpoint of any of these House challengers on any particular issue. He says he is guaranteeing that each one personally will appear on the doorstep of 10,000 homes to ask for votes. "I've told people, 'If you're not ready to knock on 10,000 doors, do not run.' " He dismisses "this so-called climate out there and these people who are trying to drive nails in our coffin."
"We're a long way from the coffin," he says.
One afternoon this month at party headquarters, Forrester shows a PowerPoint presentation touting his accomplishments as chairman and reducing the party's campaign strategy to bullet points. In a sign either of desperation or intelligent use of resources, or maybe both, the party headquarters is devoting itself almost entirely to gaining the two state House seats that Democrats need to avoid redistricting doom.
"We've trained 800-plus activists in all the tools — grassroots canvassing, phone banking," Forrester says. "We've made 45,000 calls, 16,000 door-knocks, 62,000 total contacts. This is really unsexy stuff, but it is the foundation upon which you build winning campaigns.
"Every day, our field staff punches in what a candidate is doing, how many doors he's knocked on, how many contacts he's made. We track it," he says, pointing to a graph with a flat line. "If it looks like that, the candidate ain't doing anything and we know it."
Pictures of six Republican House members flash on the screen: Call them the dirty half-dozen — six wobbly toddlers the party is targeting for defeat, all freshmen who rode into office on John McCain's coattails in swing districts and have screwed up royally since. The way Forrester sees it, these Republicans won their elections under a set of funky circumstances, and they had no business in the House in the first place.
One Middle Tennessee example is Josh Evans, a baby-faced True Believer of the GOP's right wing who is vulnerable because of a "messy, muddy" divorce, as Forrester describes it. In this divorce, which befell the representative from Greenbrier since the '08 election, Evans was indeed accused of unspecified "inappropriate marital conduct," and his wife Brittany took him to the cleaners. About the only thing he kept was a cat named Reagan and the king-size Tempur-Pedic mattress.
Another is Joe Carr, best known as the legislature's Per Diem King for raking in more than $27,000 from the taxpayers in daily allowance and mileage payments in his first year in office — even though he lives only 30 minutes away in Lascassas.
The list of vulnerable Democrats is shorter, at least at this early stage of the campaigning. That's the silver lining in the black cloud of '08 — Democrats have fewer first-termers to defend. But two Democratic representatives — Nashville's Ben West and Morristown's John Litz — aren't running for re-election, and both of those districts could go Republican. In the race for West's Hermitage seat, Republican Metro Councilman Jim Gotto looks strong.
"We're focused on the House," Forrester says with the fervor of an evangelist. "We've all stuck our fingers in our ears, and we're not being distracted by all the bad news in the press. We're focused on this path to victory."
The chairman pauses and leans back in his chair as if to gauge whether he has succeeded in beating back yet more bad press. "All we need is two seats," he says, making the victory sign. "There's a path."
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