Out of power for years, Tennessee Democrats see some hope
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee Democrats know something about disappointment. The last time voters chose a governor, the party pinned its hopes on a longshot punchline named Charlie Brown, who was trounced by 30 percentage points.
Two years before that, the Democrat who unexpectedly bested a weak primary field for a U.S. Senate seat was promptly disavowed by party leaders for his anti-gay views. Republican Bob Corker won re-election in a blowout.
But this year might be different. With Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam leaving office, there are no popular incumbents on the ballot for their offices. That advantage, combined with the feared nationwide backlash against President Donald Trump’s GOP, has at last given the Tennessee Democratic Party cause for cautious optimism heading into November. They have fielded viable candidates for governor and senator, as well as for some legislative districts where the party has not put up a fight in years.
The improved prospects add to Democratic hopes that anti-Trump energy will propel the party to a sweeping victory, possibly restoring control of the U.S. House and even the Senate, as well as governors’ offices.
Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has a legitimate shot at the open Senate seat. His moderate message and personal brand likely make him the only Democrat capable of beating Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
In the governor’s race, polls show Republican businessman Bill Lee leading former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean by double digits. But Dean has held his own in fundraising and campaigning and proven legitimate enough to draw Lee into head-to-head debates.
Democrats see some of their best opportunities in the suburbs, where Trump gets a cooler reception, specifically among women, despite polling well statewide.
The dynamic has made for a compelling state Senate contest in suburban Memphis, where scientist and three-time cancer survivor Gabby Salinas upended a candidate with more money in the August Democratic primary. She now faces GOP state Sen. Brian Kelsey, who didn’t even have a Democratic challenger four years ago.
On a larger scale, though, Tennessee doesn’t look ripe for the kind of blue wave that would completely topple Republican rule.
The state’s economy is strong. Trump remains popular in many places, and Republicans can point to successes in education access, infrastructure and other areas. Haslam is still a popular leader, and the state Legislature fares well in polling.
The GOP holds both Senate seats, seven of nine House seats, the governor’s mansion and supermajorities in the state Legislature.
But Democrats believe they can gain ground and even a Senate seat, something the party hasn’t done since Al Gore won in 1990. They have fielded candidates for 95 percent of state legislative races this year. In 2014, they competed in about half of all legislative contests.
One big uncertainty is how the contentious Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation process will affect the election, particularly after Bredesen said he would have voted for the nominee, a move that did not sit well with members of his party.
The state Senate race in Memphis — in a district that includes a narrow corridor of the city and spreads into the subdivisions, chain eateries, strip malls, golf courses and townhouses of mostly white suburbs — has the attention of GOP Senate Speaker Randy McNally. His political action committee bought $300,000 in TV time for an attack ad that calls Salinas a democratic socialist. The ad shows that Salinas tweeted about democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional primary win in June in New York.
Salinas responded that she is an underdog like Ocasio-Cortez was, and she criticized McNally’s PAC for using negative rhetoric. She said she is a Democrat and a progressive who thinks people should have access to affordable health care and a quality education.
The 30-year-old researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was 7 years old when her parents first brought her from Bolivia to Memphis to get treated for cancer at St. Jude.
Now she is echoing familiar calls from state Democrats to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid program, TennCare, to about 300,000 more low-income people under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Haslam has supported expansion as governor, only to see his fellow Republicans in the Legislature dismiss the idea multiple times. Kelsey was among the plan’s opponents.
Kelsey, an attorney from Germantown, bills himself as a “doer, not a talker,” and a “man of action” while others are “elected to sit quietly on the back bench,” his campaign website says. Among the accomplishments he touts are a constitutional amendment that banned the income tax permanently, a law that more than doubled penalties for repeat armed burglars and funding increases for K-12 public schools.
“Tennesseans know Governor Bill Haslam and the Republican legislature have put our state on the right track, and they will vote to keep it that way,” Kelsey said in an emailed statement.
For Salinas to win she’ll need support from people like Marcia Meisinger, a 71-year-old voter who said she used to be a Republican and voted for Ronald Reagan and both Bushes for president. Now she says she will vote for Democrats across the board because of gun control, women’s rights, misgivings about Trump’s tax cuts and other issues.
“This time, I’m that angry,” Meisinger said in an interview in east Memphis. “I’ll vote for any Democrat.”