By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Democrats are looking at Thursday’s primary as a critical step in the rebuilding urged by an internal analysis last year.
Since 2006, Democrats have lost 19 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate, placing them firmly in the minority of the two chambers. Another nine Democratic incumbents announced earlier this year they weren’t running again.
Then there are the newly redrawn districts by Republicans that are pitting several incumbent Democrats against each other in the primary this week.
Nevertheless, Democratic leaders say they’re optimistic about the party’s 47 challengers and incumbents in races.
“We’re incredibly encouraged by the quality of Democratic candidates we see in serious races throughout the state,” said Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese. “We’ll … look to them for leadership as we continue on a new, strategic path forward to rebuild the people’s Democratic Party in Tennessee.”
The confidential November 2011 study obtained by The Associated Press earlier this year is based on interviews with close to 100 current and former leaders in state Democratic politics. It identified a “deep and longstanding lack of trust and mutual respect among the most significant Democratic stakeholders,” and stressed that the party needs to make major changes in order to claw back Republican gains in the state.
“The window to fix these problems is closing and the situation could get worse before it gets better,” according to the study by Big Change Strategies, an Ohio-based consultant.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville acknowledged Democrats have had to do a “lot of re-evaluation of how we approach politics in this new day and age.”
But he said he’s hoping to avoid the “worse” scenario — as predicted by the analysis — and continue the rebuilding process by getting some good candidates who can mount a strong challenge in the fall.
“If we end up with about nine really competitive races, and we win six of them, I’ll be tickled to death,” Turner said.
Redistricting, however, is going to force the Democrats to lose some seats.
There are three races in Memphis where incumbents face each other: state Reps. John Deberry and Jeanne Richardson; G.A. Hardaway and Mike Kernell; and Sens. Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero. In Chattanooga, Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors are facing off.
“They’re all good legislators … and it’s a shame that half of them are going to be gone just because of the redistricting,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.
Lawmakers acknowledge the redistricting scenario is awkward, but for the most part, they’ve treated each other respectfully.
“It’s an awkward process, but it certainly has not been a negative process,” Kyle said.
Regardless of who wins this week and Nov. 6, Turner said the Democrats are headed for a turnaround.
“I don’t think we’re going to be 40 years in the wilderness type of thing,” he said. “I think we’re going to be back quicker than what some people might think.”