By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For a party once accustomed to dominating state politics, the outlook for Tennessee Democrats is bleak.
Over the past decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to giving up GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, losing two governor’s races by wide margins and watching as the state Supreme Court appointed the first Republican attorney general since Reconstruction.
The heavy erosion of Democratic power has left them with little sway at the state Capitol on issues like Medicaid expansion, guns, education and abortion. And while Republicans in charge have pushed an increasingly conservative agenda, so far there’s been no sign of a new opening for Democrats.
Still, longtime Republican campaign adviser Tom Ingram said the GOP’s takeover after decades in the political wilderness shows that no party can claim a permanent hold on power.
“When political parties get too successful they usually get arrogant and make mistakes and set up the return of the other party,” he said. “It will turn again. I don’t know when, but it will.”
Democrats hoping to revive their party’s fortunes recognize that there are few quick fixes.
“Sometimes you wake up and the currents have shifted and nobody had even noticed,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat who previously served in the state Senate. “It kind of happened that way for Democrats.”
Democrats are looking to several areas to build out their diminished ranks. They include:
HITTING REPUBLICANS ON INSURE TENNESSEE
House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh says the double defeat of Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to extend health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans shows that GOP lawmakers have strayed from public opinion.
“It’s got to have repercussions,” Fitzhugh said. “We frankly turned down billions of dollars. It makes no sense.”
But whether Democrats gain a boost in campaign contributions from health care and business groups that supported the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal won’t be known until next year’s campaign season.
Craig Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association, acknowledged that Insure Tennessee was a major priority, but he added that he doesn’t expect “retribution” when it comes to campaign contributions.
“We stick with our friends,” he said. “And if they couldn’t vote with us on Insure Tennessee, that’s OK. They supported us on other issues, so we’re OK with that.”
EXPLOITING GOP INFIGHTING
With so few Democrats in the Legislature, attention has turned toward Republican primaries, where moderates duke it out with tea party-styled candidates.
Some GOP lawmakers including Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro have denounced Haslam as “a traitor to the party” over isolated efforts to defeat critics in primaries. For now, Womick and his allies make up the fringe of the Republican membership in the General Assembly. But that could change.
Ingram, who has served as a top adviser to Haslam and Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, said the right Democratic candidate could benefit from “divisive primaries that the supermajority is driving.”
“I’d be looking for where the worst primaries are going to be, and let the Republicans tear each other up and have good Democratic candidates come into the general election against the wounded Republicans,” he said.
FOCUSING ON WOMEN AND MINORITIES
For decades, the state Democratic Party was dominated by white males from rural areas. But that base has now shifted to the Republican column.
“The future of Tennessee Democrats is college-educated white women and non-white people,” said Democratic operative Mark Brown, who is white. “Tennessee Democrats shouldn’t expend resources on anyone that looks like me.”
Democrats didn’t do themselves any favors last session with the immigrant community when a bill to extend in-state tuition benefits to non-citizens failed in the House by a single vote. Two Democrats who supported the measure were absent when the vote was taken.
Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville said the party needs to cast a wide net.
“It’s going to take white men, black men, white women and black women,” said Gilmore, who is African-American. “I think it’s going to take all of us to claw our way back to the top.”
Some Democrats may breathe a sigh of relief that unpopular President Barack Obama will not be on the ballot in 2016, though his absence could hurt in urban areas where he helped drive turnout.
HOLDING THE CITIES, EXPANDING TO SUBURBS
A few bright spots for Democrats have been in mayoral races in the state’s largest cities, including Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Clarksville. Some see those wins as potential springboards to statewide office for the likes of Chattanooga’s Berke or Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
With rural areas now largely voting Republican, Democrats may try to break the GOP stronghold on suburban areas around major cities as more people move to Tennessee who disagree with tea party-leaning GOP lawmakers.
But Republicans say the recent defeat of two former Democratic state lawmakers, Nathan Vaughn in Kingsport and Lowe Finney in Jackson, in smaller mayor’s races indicate cities aren’t all Democratic strongholds.
“State Democrats were sending money and campaign staff to Jackson to prop up the Finney campaign, only to suffer a devastating loss,” said Josh Thomas, a GOP operative who worked on the Jackson mayor’s race.
“Once again, the Democrats are stuck without a credible path forward.”