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In Defense of — Somewhat — The TN Democratic Party (updated)

November 8, 2008

There’s been some back and forth between Gray Sasser, Chair of the TN Democratic Party and some area bloggers regarding his comments about the recent lackluster results in local House and Senate elections. Follow these.

Aunt B

It isn’t exactly the job of the chair of the party to oversee all races and “pay attention” to them. There are many more people with more direct responsibility in the House and the Senate. Each chamber and each party has a “campaign manager” of sorts who looks at the races, picks the important ones and helps with ad buys, GOTV, etc. That person works with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. They’re like a DNC for state level campaigns. See once upon a time TN Dems had a really good campaign manager at this level and he went on to do bigger and better things (even though he’s still a direct mail kinda guy in an Internet age). He’s one reason why Democrats did so well at the state level. I do not mean to cast aspersions on whomever is doing that job now, but . . .

Anyway, when someone like Pinion says that the top of the ticket is killing local races, he means it. He exaggerates, but he isn’t just tossing out blame to make himself look better. He would not be the first candidate or campaign staffer to say this. What Pinion said about Obama, others – decidedly liberal good Keith Olbermann loving Democrats – have said in the past about Bill Clinton, John Kerry (war hero, you know) and Al Gore ( born here “native son,” you know), and they have all come with the poll numbers to back it up, written on whiteboard (though it is ironic that a state party who thought it too risky to have First Lady Clinton speak in TN during campaign season supported Sen. Clinton wholeheartedly)

I mean, you guys haven’t noticed how absolutely conservative Bart Gordon, Jim Tanner and Lincoln Davis are and how liberal Steve Cohen is and how liberal Jim Cooper became when he moved to District 4? Did you hear about Gordon or Tanner or Davis stumping hard for Obama? I mean, no one was stopping them. They didn’t out of self preservation.

The Fred Hobbs “is Obama a terrorist” stance was not an anomaly. Obama did better than Kerry nationwide save most of Tennessee and areas of Alabama and Mississippi. You tell me why.

However, just because I believe what Pinion says is true doesn’t mean TN Dems’ negative perceptions of Obama could not have been overcome. I simply don’t think it would have been worth Obama’s time to do so. It may have been worth a little of his money, however. His campaign was not of the ordinary campaign mindset, and was not in the practice of offering money up to down ticket races or the DNC to help with their campaign efforts. Their way of assistance was to let others have a taste of their campaign machinery. The DNC and the DLCC had, if I’m reading Pinion correctly, other priorities.

The problem with offering up some of your machinery, mostly volunteers making phone calls from Nashville to West TN, is that a lot of people who come into the offices during a Presidential election are not interested in making phone calls for Randy Camp. They want to try and convince people to vote for the top of the ticket. (One thing I noticed this year that I found rather appalling is that people were allowed the choice of not making calls for local Dems. That was wack). That no one at least tried to make the case about helping down ticket races being good for Obama puzzled me greatly. Still, you don’t find a lot of people willing to shuffle off to Fentress Co. from Nashville to knock on doors for some yokel they never heard of.

But Obama’s campaign didn’t find TN worth effort despite a “50 state strategy.” The state didn’t prove itself essential to an electoral college victory. And of course the titular head of the party sent out mixed signals – getting his name out as a possible VP candidate or cabinet post worthy type dude while saying, well it isn’t worth your time coming to Tennessee.

Yes, sure this was a prime year to hit local Republicans hard. I don’t know whether Gov. Bredesen and other top players recognized this early enough to decide. When McWherter decided not to run, the Bush = McCain strategy was already afoot by all Dem candidates and his approval rating was already trashed. The question is, what was Bush’s approval rating in TN? Did enough of the nationwide bad times for Republicans actually leak into the minds of voters considering local candidates? Was anyone strong enough to challenge Alexander? There are more questions to answer besides whether Democrats have a backbone.

Were I running things, i.e. House Dem Caucus staff guy, I would attack in off year elections and protect during Presidential elections except when you are in a situation with a strong incumbent Democrat in the White House. Widen the playing field in the off year campaigns by recruiting strong centrists to unseat local Republicans when fewer are paying attention, and protect weaker seats when there is a strong conservative ticket. This plan depends on our ability to recruit good candidates, raise money, and convince the national party TN Dems are worth spending on. Also, the party needs to modernize. The chief staffers need to take a real long look at what the Obama campaign did and how they did it, take what will work for TN and run with it.

The issue isn’t whether TN Dems sell themselves as “Republican lite.” They campaign on poll tested issues like everyone else, mostly of local import to their districts. (Though I think they rely too heavily at times on the legacy of Dem party affiliation in rural West TN). The idea is to effectively sell a moderate/conservative Democrat to a very conservative population.

You will not get to win most of these non-Metropolitian districts with your dream progressive candidate. If your goal is to take back the State House then you will have to get on board with those moderates or forever be disgruntled. If your concern is a strong Dem party in TN you have to be willing to work with them and not have a hissy fit every time a Democratic candidate says he/she loves guns. If you don’t want to support those candidates, fine. Jim Hawkins, Nat Vaughn, they’re no Paul Wellstone but they aren’t Joe Lieberman either. Consider the alternatives.

GOP rep Campfield (R) puts in his two cents which are actually worth far less. He says:

The “Black factor”? AHHH! the race card. Democrats favorite tool. It makes me laugh as Democrats keep dropping it over and over calling Tennessee Republicans “A bunch of backwards dumb, racist” Lets see, Ford jr. got more republican crossovers when he repackaged himself as a conservative (and almost won) against moderate Bob Corker. Were the same people racist and dumb then?

Wrong. Jr got around 3% of the GOP vote, if that. Were the same people racist and dumb then? Probably. I’m working on finding actual numbers but my theory is that those people didn’t vote in the Senate election in significant numbers. Remember, it is an off year election. Why do they call them “off year,” kids?

PS: Newscoma’s letter to Sasser is an interesting one (sorry to confess I had not read). I think what she experienced with Sasser and other party leadership is common, and I don’t think it’s a TN only thing. I have to say I probably did it too when I was working, but more often than not I did manage to return phone calls and meet with people.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2008 8:23 am

    Tanner toyed several years ago of switching parties. I don’t think he really has to. I ran a story back in the summer that he was sticking with Hillary after she suspended (conceded.)
    It was amazing, really, that although this county voted McCain, his courtesy votes were actually pretty low where other courtesy votes, for Herron and Maddox, were up by three and four thousand.
    I don’t know what I think about that but for some reason, I’ve taken note. I feel like their may be some significance in two years I just don’t know what.

  2. November 8, 2008 9:35 am

    Interesting take. I’ll be linking to it later.

    P.S. Gore was born in D.C.

  3. Tyrone permalink
    November 9, 2008 3:33 pm

    TN Republicans in the state legislature are going to come forward with a social agenda. I guarantee it is coming. They see the writing on the wall. With our economy in shambles, the rising cost of energy and healthcare, and mass job loss Republicans still had a strong showing in Tennessee. That is only going to bolster Republicans claims that they can run and win on “values” issues in 2010 and beyond.

    If the left wing of the party in Tenn want to win statewide and locally they are going to have to be comfortable with the fact that there are conservative members of the party and YES they are real Democrats. John Tanner, Bart Gordon, and Lincoln Davis have proven what they can do in rural, conservative areas. Look at Lincoln for instance, from what I’ve read his opponent this year spent $500,000, Obama lost huge in the 4th and Lincoln still won by a huge 21% margin. Lincoln can play well in urban areas if people listen to his message. Even Jeff Woods at the Nashville Scene, who had previously written Lincoln off, liked his “Why I am a Democrat” video. He can articulate a message that plays well with Democrats and Republicans, urban and rual, and takes the social issues off the table.

    Lincoln, John, and Bart and our Gov, Phil, have shown that moderate Dems can win statewide and winning is what matters most, right?

  4. November 9, 2008 4:25 pm

    right. changed

    I think the GOP will misread the tea leaves if they try to run on values issues next year and the next, especially if people are still focused on economic and other bread and butter issues. Obama called social issues a “distraction” and that appeared to have worked. Problem is, what to attack on at a local level, what will be the issues local candidates are running on.

  5. November 9, 2008 11:42 pm

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that all of our candidates need to be as liberal as we are on the blogs. I’m certainly not arguing that. But there’s a fine line between being a moderate or conservative Democrat and essentially being Republican-lite.

    I always cite this example, but the Democrats in Virginia pulled off a miraculous victory in 2006 by getting Jim Webb elected to the Senate. He’s no liberal, he’s a very conservative Democrat. But he articulated a clear Democratic message. He defined himself, rather than let himself be defined by the Republicans. That’s how he earned my respect, even if I disagree with him.

    Tennessee Democrats didn’t do that in this election cycle. They ran campaigns on, as Jeff Woods put it, as “only slightly less crazy than the Republicans.” If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. And if it’s the top of the ticket that’s causing problems downticket, then it’s the job of the state Democratic party, plus those who run the campaigns, to define the downticket candidates independently.

    I certainly recognize that gun-loving conservatives are just as much a part of the Democratic Party as people like me. But you have to define how a Democratic candidate is any different from the Republican candidate, and they didn’t do that in this election.

  6. November 10, 2008 2:53 am

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that all of our candidates need to be as liberal as we are on the blogs.

    Some have, and that implication is always there. What, after all, is a real Democrat, anyway? Apparently, since I support Gay marriage and the national platform and state party does not, then I must not be a real one. Yet, some one, somewhere, is always demanding people campaign as “real Democrats,” the implication being they must all fit into a box or be fake.

    It could be argued convincingly that the Webb win was an anti-Allen referendum. Also, I don’t see how a win by a conservative Dem in VA is a miracle.

    I do not know which candidate Woods is talking about (wasn’t that Kotz?). From what I see, local candidates ran on local issues and some got into negative ad battles with their opponents. What candidates actually ran on social issues this time?

    It isn’t just making sure people know that a D is different from an R. That can often be a surefire way to lose if you live in a small conservative district. There are other ways to win.


  1. TNDP, More Words Of Sage Advice – Newscoma
  2. Sasser Off The Hook – Newscoma

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