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Is the Future Bleak for Tennessee Democrats?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Nov 25, 2010

President Obama was not the only one who faced a shellacking on Nov. 2. Tennessee Democrats suffered devastating defeats as the Republicans easily won the governor's mansion and gained three congressional seats, 14 state House seats, and one state Senate seat. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans run state government lock, stock and barrel.

The primary reason that Tennessee Democrats lost was their inability to distinguish themselves from the national party. Southern Democrats are no longer conservatives but moderate liberals. This transformation began in the 1960s as civil rights, national security and social issues led conservatives to join the Republican Party and liberals to join the Democratic Party. These changes in Southern Democrats today are reflected in Blue Dog Democrats supporting Obama and Pelosi 85-90 percent of the time.

The consequences of this are dramatic. First, the timing of the Democratic losses is important because Republicans will control redistricting and redraw legislative districts to solidify Republicans' control of the state legislature.

Second, the elections depleted the Democratic farm team for higher offices. Congressman Lincoln Davis was considered a strong statewide candidate, but he and potentially strong candidates like Mark Maddox and Doug Jackson were defeated, and Roy Herron's reputation was tarnished in his congressional defeat. Republicans will now use their control of the state legislature to prevent Democrats from passing bills making them look ineffective and thereby reducing their chances of winning higher office.

Third, the Tennessee Democratic Party looks more like the national Democratic Party with more urban and minority legislators. Two-thirds of Democratic legislators will come from urban areas and almost 40 percent will be African-American. This composition will lead to a greater focus on more liberal and urban issues.

What are Tennessee Democrats to do then? First, Tennessee Democrats need to decide what they believe. More liberal positions connect them to the national party, which is a recipe for disaster in a conservative state. Economic populism could unite urban and rural Democrats, but if populism did not work in the economic environment of 2008 and 2010, it's not going to work anytime. Democrats have had more success nationwide creating an urban-suburban coalition that is pro-business and emphasizes quality of life issues such as education, transportation, crime, etc.

Second, Tennessee Democrats need legislative leaders who can expose Republican rifts, articulate a popular message and recruit quality candidates who reflect their districts. They also need a strong party chair who can articulate the party's message, raise money, build up the party organization throughout the state, but especially in the suburbs, and mobilize voters.

The Democrats will eventually rebound in Tennessee. However, the actions they take will determine how quickly.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of The Jackson Sun