Bill Lee

It’s been a long time since Tennessee Democrats were competitive in a statewide election. 

In 2006, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen won a resounding re-election victory — but it’s been mostly crickets since. 

The struggling party has its next chance at an upset in about 15 months, when Republican Gov. Bill Lee is up for re-election, the only statewide race on the ballot in 2022. Outwardly, party representatives say they have a shot, but it remains unclear exactly how they can turn the tide in the GOP-dominated state, where Lee beat well-funded former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean by more than 20 points in 2018 and where Donald Trump secured more than 60 percent of the vote in 2020. 

Still, the Democratic side of the 2022 election is beginning to heat up. Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor who has been vocally critical of Lee’s pandemic response, is officially considering a run, and Memphis City Councilmember J.B. Smiley is reportedly mulling a bid as well. Carnita Atwater, a Memphis nonprofit leader, has filed to run in the Democratic primary, but she does not appear to have much of a campaign infrastructure in place. 

There’s some debate internally among Democrats about whether and how much to talk about COVID-19 on the campaign trail. Despite criticisms of Lee’s response from some corners, the governor has remained popular in limited public polling, and fewer than 40 percent of Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated against the disease — among the lowest rates in the nation

“If I was consulting a candidate, I wouldn’t advise them to put all of their stake in making this completely about COVID-19, because there are so many other issues that have really bogged down the state,” says Hendrell Remus, the chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “Our focus is on the issues that will be able to transcend the political climate that has consumed us with so much division.”

To him, that means the economy, health care access and medical marijuana. 

State Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis) is consulting a candidate — Martin — through his new advisory firm, and he more or less agrees, despite his candidate’s own background in a COVID-19 ward. 

“We’ve got to focus on what [Lee] is doing horribly on, and not focus in on just this one topic of COVID vaccinations,” Harris says. 

Remus is “confident in the caliber of candidates” who have reached out to him to discuss a Democratic primary run. That said, he’s hoping for someone “who can really connect and resonate with people, who’s charismatic, who can go into both urban and rural areas and be able to deliver a message of making Tennessee stronger, safer and healthier, where people can get a fair shot.” Remus is also looking for a gubernatorial candidate who can attract enough attention to draw donations from outside Tennessee. 

“I don’t care if you have a Ph.D. or an M.D. or a GED, if you can connect with people, if you are charismatic and if you can put competent people in place to help deliver results for people in Tennessee, that’s what we should be focused on,” Remus says. 

As part of its efforts to cut into the GOP advantage, the state Dems are trying to register hundreds of thousands of new voters this cycle — an effort they hope can be funded in part by half a million dollars from the national Democratic Party’s new red-state fund. 

Democrats continue to dominate in the state’s population centers, especially Nashville and Memphis. But that hasn’t been enough to win elections in recent years, as the state’s rural areas have rapidly become nearly impenetrable Republican strongholds. The goal, according to Remus and Harris, is to lock down Nashville and Memphis, make inroads in certain shifting suburban areas and attempt to cut into margins in rural areas, if only by 3 to 5 percentage points. 

“We know we probably won’t ever flip some of those red counties again,” Remus says. “But we can close the margin in some of these counties … so we put more votes in the bag for statewide candidates.”

To increase performance in rural areas, the Democratic officials say, it’s important to make sure Democrats are on the ballot in as many legislative districts as possible, even if the individual race is a long shot. It’s also important simply to show up in those communities, they say, as evidenced by a statewide TNDP tour this summer and fall and Remus’ own stops in rural counties since taking over the party earlier this year

“This was a Democratically run state for many years,” Harris says. “It’s not that we can’t get these people back. We either haven’t tried, we’ve done it the wrong way, or we’ve purposely tried to find ways to push them away by acting as if the things that they care about aren’t the message of a Democrat.”

Despite their hopes and dreams, Tennessee Democrats face perhaps their steepest climb yet in the 2022 governor’s race.

Asked if he could envision any scenario in which the 2022 race could be competitive, one top Republican who worked on the 2018 race laughs.

“No,” he says. “Short answer: No.”

 

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