As in other places, the Volunteer State’s open primary can be a blessing or a curse---which one it will be for the 2014 mid-terms depends upon the ability of Tennessee’s progressive voters to resist the urge to hedge their bets and stack the Republican ballot.
My beloved Tennessee Dems and left-leaning Independents, let’s have a word. Reports are coming in from all parts of the state about the high turnout for the start of early voting----thus far, a 15% increase over 2010 with many cities and counties reporting record numbers. I have full faith that this is due, in part, to excitement over some of the awesome Democratic candidates who have risen to the challenge of trying to replace certain wretched GOP incumbents. There are some excellent folks who have stepped forward to genuinely serve the people of Tennessee and take on the arduous task of repairing the damage done by self-serving elected officials like Bill Haslam, Lamar Alexander, Stacey Campfield, Scott DesJarlais, Marsha Blackburn, and Diane Black. However, let’s talk strategy for a moment. You see, there’s an awful lot of chatter in comment threads and on message boards about attempting ballot-hopping coups similar to the one that knocked Eric Cantor out in Virginia’s primary. While the success of that play makes it tempting to try and emulate it---especially in local races like State Senate District 7---it’s simply not the best strategy in the bigger picture. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a moment to reassess what you think you know right now about the political power of Tennessee’s Democrats.
First, stop getting suckered in by this current misconception that Tennessee is a solid red state. Take a few moments to read Jack Neely’s 2012 piece for Metro Pulse, "Tennessee's Red State Blues". I, myself, came across it somewhere between hearing environmental activist and former U.S. Senatorial candidate Park Overall's heartfelt query in her 2012 Jackson Day keynote: "Where is the Democratic Party of my parents?!" and fleeing for the liberal refuge of the Left Coast following a difficult year spent mired in election year politics of the Tea Party-strangled remnants of my beautiful home state. Neely's in-depth analysis of the swing-state history of Tennessee's electoral leanings coupled with Overall’s passionate call to action may just remind you that all is not lost and that the current flush of red is bound to give way sooner or later. The pendulum always swings back.
Next, take a look at another Metro Pulse piece that recently asked: "Who Votes? Siler Versus Campfield Could be a Race, if Democrats Voted", wherein Frank Cagle examines the numbers and determines that:
"...if all the Democrats in Knox County who came out to vote in the presidential primary came to the polls in local elections, the Democrats could take over Knox County."However, we need take that a step further. It's not simply a matter of getting Democrats to the polls but of getting Dems to vote on their side of the ballot. Crossover voting has a tendency to skew the numbers and makes Tennessee's Democratic electorate appear much weaker than it actually is. This only furthers the mistaken assumption that Dems can't win which results in left-leaning voters trying to influence the presumed outcome in any way that they can, even if it means abandoning Democratic candidates to vote Republican. Having worked as a strategist and organizer on campaigns from Florida to California, I can tell you from experience one thing that I've learned about voter perception which is this: If Tennessee Democrats continue to feel that they are swimming alone in a sea of red, they will continue to either stay home or ballot-hop---either is disastrous for the Party and the candidates. A strong showing of support for Democratic candidates in the primaries can and does motivate more voters to the polls in the general election. The GOP feels pretty confident in their grasp on Tennessee which inevitably leads to a degree of laziness on behalf of their party’s voters---especially in a mid-term. This can be the crucial advantage that Tennessee Dems need to pull off an upset---just as Cagle describes in his piece.
Expanding this potential to statewide races, keep in mind that The Economist crunched the numbers and discovered that voters---specifically, African-American voters---from just Davidson and Shelby counties alone have sufficient political force to write a better history for us all:
“If Mr. Gore had turned out the same share of voting-age citizens as Mr. Obama in just those two counties round Memphis and Nashville, he would have won Tennessee—and with it the White House.”As a Volunteer State native forced to swallow the bitter pill of voting for Gore in Florida in 2000, I will simply say that, as a National Party, we can only learn from our mistakes and commit to do better. Tennessee Dems, you have so much more political power than you know and we progressives around the country desperately need you to see that.
Because it matters.
On a global scale.
There are three important races this election season that promise to be determined more by the commitment of Tennessee’s Democrats to supporting their own than anything else. The anti-incumbent fervor against each office holder has within in it, not just the opportunity to replace them, but to flip those seats and help regain a balance of power both in Nashville and in DC. The first, of course, is the aforementioned State Senate seat for District 7. There is, indeed, a powerful statewide movement to oust the General Assembly’s most embarrassing member, Stacey Campfield. As Frank Cagle explains in his Metro Pulse piece, the numbers are there and the Democrats’ success will depend largely on whether their candidate, Cheri Siler, is pitted against Campfield or his Republican primary opponent, Richard Briggs.
As such, it’s understandable that even Siler’s strongest supporters are tempted to cross over and vote for Campfield in the hopes of giving her the greatest chance for success in the general election. From the buzz around the internet watercooler, there is equal concern that maybe a Democrat can’t take that district and some of Siler’s supporters---with their cursed presumption of defeat overshadowing their misgivings that both GOP candidates will vote the same in the legislature---worry whether they should cross over to vote for Briggs in an effort to eliminate any possibility of Campfield’s re-election. So what we have here is a popular and well-supported Democratic candidate who has gotten out there to fight the good fight only to face the threat of getting KO’d by her own party in the name of strategic voting. With Siler’s supporters off voting in the Republican primary, the misperception of a less-than-enthusiastic primary turnout by Democratic voters risks discouraging progressives from participating in the general election and threatens donors’ confidence in her campaign which, of course, can very well prove to be a deciding factor come November.
Similarly, Democratic candidate Lenda Sherrell faces the danger of her campaign efforts being undone by her own supporters in the race for U.S. House District 4. Named one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents, scandal-ridden Congressman Scott DesJarlais faces off in the Republican primary against former State Senator Jim Tracy. A favorite among late-night pundits, DesJarlais would seemingly be an easy takedown for Tracy, who narrowly lost in a three-way 2010 race that pitted him against Diane Black and Tea Party loudmouth Lou Ann Zelenik. Despite Zelenik’s promise to stump for DesJarlais this go-round, Tracy’s sizable campaign chest makes him a formidable opponent although his voting record in the state legislature does threaten to haunt him at the primary polls with some of the district’s more conservative voters. Nonetheless, DesJarlais’ greatest asset may prove to be well-meaning progressive voters who cross over to cast their vote for him in the hopes of giving well-liked Democrat Lenda Sherrell a better shot in the general election. Unfortunately, much like the case with Cheri Siler, doing so threatens to cast doubts on Sherrell’s ability to pull off an upset in November and her campaign could be over before it’s even really begun.
Equally as important as looking at the individual races, Tennessee progressives must stand back and look at the entire ballot. While some local races have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Democratic candidates---such as State House District 51, where mom-to-be Jennifer Buck Wallace is squaring off against equally competent opponents Bill Beck and Stephen Fotopulous to replace retiring State Rep. Mike Turner---others have little to offer party voters who may tend toward crossing over to vote for a lesser-of-two-evils on the Republican ballot. Nowhere does all this crossover voting pose a greater threat than in one of this election season’s most promising races, the battle to unseat Republican Lamar Alexander in the U.S. Senate. Interestingly, there is as much desire to cross party lines and vote for anyone-at-all against Alexander as there is for Dems to opt for casting a vote for Alexander himself---the devil they know---against his far-right opponent, the Sarah Palin-endorsed State Rep. Joe Carr, a devil they also know but like even less. Even Carr himself has shown that his biggest fear is Democrats jumping ship to support Alexander in the primaries---so much so that he attempted to restrict crossover voting during the last legislative session. Take that as you will. Unlike the other two battles we’ve examined, the Democratic Senate primary has shaped up to be a genuine race with two clear forerunners---Terry Adams and Gordon Ball. I’ll get into more detail on Adams in a forthcoming piece because he’s definitely a candidate to watch and merits more time than I can give him here.
What it boils down to between these two is not very complicated. Terry Adams initially caught my attention because he reminds me of the Democrats of my youth---specifically Jim Sasser with a bit of both Gores thrown in for good measure. In a time when voters have grown weary of career politicians, as a fresh-faced political newcomer, Adams could be just what the Party needs to fire up the base. By comparison, Gordon Ball...well...primarily, I have difficulty with the fact that Ball is bankrolling his own campaign because, really, does Washington need one more Senator buying his way to Capitol Hill? Though he now suddenly calls it a mistake, the fact remains that he has supported Lamar Alexander in the past and still supports many of the same disastrous economic policies that Alexander does. I can't help but worry that, as a self-financed multimillionaire with allegiance to no one but himself, Ball will enter those Senate chambers with the intention of legislating for his own personal gain and---as a self-described Blue Dog Dem with an affinity for a flat tax---when it comes down to the votes, he could tend toward siding with the GOP on economic policy and perhaps more.
Terry Adams has a strong and well-developed platform. He’s been hard at work travelling all across the state to connect with voters and he is ready for the fight against Lamar Alexander. He's proving to be wildly popular and, perhaps because of this, Adams' greatest threat in the primaries isn't going to be Ball---it's the talk among his own supporters about ballot-hopping to vote in the Republican primary. Despite their good intentions in doing so, this could leave the door open for Ball to, effectively, win the party's nomination by default. Not only could this risky maneuver inadvertently knock Adams out of the race, but in giving Ball the nomination, it would promise to turn off potential voters by seeming to confirm their misperception that there is no real difference between the two parties. Fortunately, none of the worse case scenarios discussed here has happened yet. With another week still to go in early voting and the statewide primary election day itself on August 7th, Tennessee progressives have ample opportunity to shake off the ghosts, kick the crossover habit, and show out at the polls to vote for their Democratic candidates.
I'll close by saying that, if you knew just how many Tennessee voters are saying things to the effect of "I've never voted Democrat in my life but I will to clean house of this lot", you would feel a bit more confident about voting for your Party. My biggest concern for Tennessee Dems continues to be that an attitude of presumed defeat will negate the effect of Independents and yes, even Conservatives, who are leaning left this election season and tipping the scales in favor of Democratic candidates. Despite the misconception of Tennessee as a solidly red state, voters have shown time and again through the years their willingness to swing either way when given the right candidates.
You have the right candidates.
Now go to those polls and vote blue.