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VOL. 42 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 22, 2018

Blue wave? State Democrats more likely up a creek

Other states might see Trump backlash but it’s doubtful here

By Sam Stockard

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Tennessee Democrats are hoping a “blue wave” will wash across the Volunteer State this fall and help them regain a number of seats lost over the last decade. Republicans are banking on red voters to crush any wave by capitalizing on the popularity of President Donald Trump when November arrives.

“Mid-term elections usually yield a tide against the party that controls the White House. That means a blue tide in 2018. Trump’s unpopularity could strengthen that tide, as well,” says Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer.

And even though a strong economy favors Republicans, Democrats could have a “small advantage” in 2018, one bolstered by having strong candidates for two statewide elections, U.S. Senate and governor, Geer adds. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean are considered strong Democratic candidates for those key posts.

“Whether that is enough to sweep Democrats into office in Tennessee is unclear at this point. But there is reason for some optimism,” Geer notes.

Even as Trump maintains strong support in Tennessee, Democrats here are buoyed by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones’ win over Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, 15 seats picked up in the Virginia statehouse and the win by Democrat Phil Murphy vs. Republican Kim Guadagno to succeed Chris Christie as New Jersey governor.

All told, Democrats have netted 33 seats in special elections since President Trump took office, Politifact.com numbers show.

Jones was the main speaker at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s Three Star Dinner in Lebanon, where it raised $450,000.

“I believe we can show the country that we embrace the change we see in our diverse communities – that we have pride in a way of life that values people,” Jones told the crowd.

That fundraising total combined with $125,000 from the Democratic National Committee shows Tennessee is a “state of opportunity,” Jones said.

“You just have to look at recent elections and the polls to see that Democrats are energized and Republicans are not,” says state Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville legislator who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “That doesn’t mean people will not have to work hard, but it means that Democrats will be in a position to be competitive in many places that they have not been.”

For months, Democrats have been touting they have candidates for nearly every Tennessee legislative race this year, nearly 115 as they try to roll back 74-25 and 28-5 deficits in the General Assembly after holding majorities for decades.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro isn’t prognosticating after seeing Democrats get roughed up in 2016. But he says Tennessee Democrats will have strong candidates running solid campaigns across the state to give voters an opportunity to change the General Assembly

“There’s obviously still gerrymandering and polarization that’s gonna stop … a complete change. But I think you’ll see races that are more engaged and more competitive than there have been in decades,” says Yarbro, a Nashville attorney.

One notable tight race puts Republican Sen. Mark Pody against Democratic challenger Mary Alice Carfi, who lost to Pody by 300 votes in a December 2017 special election despite being a political newcomer in solidly red District 14, a largely rural district east of Nashville.

Another potential pickup for Republicans is District 31 where Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown faces the winner of the Democratic primary between Rodanial Ray Ransom of Cordova and Gabby Salinas and David Weatherspoon, both of Memphis.

One of the few bright spots for Democrats in recent years involved a win by Cordova Democrat Dwayne Thompson vs. veteran Republican Steve McManus in the Cordova area.

“The suburban areas of Shelby (County) are tending to get a little more competitive. Knox has some competitive districts. In a cycle or two, Rutherford is going to have some pretty competitive districts,” explains Middle Tennessee State University political scientist Kent Syler.

Who is energized?

Syler points out the Pody-Carfi race was a “real wakeup call” for Republicans in December 2017 and will get the GOP’s “full attention” this fall. Republicans had that race in their memory in March when Republican Shane Reeves ran against Democrat Gayle Jordan in a special election to replace departed Sen. Jim Tracy in District 14.

Polling showed Jordan’s supporters going to early voting in large numbers, and Republicans responded quickly with a massive mailer campaign and ground attack, which included a Murfreesboro rally attended by U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Scott DesJarlais, as well as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and several key state legislative leaders. The result was a nearly 72 percent to 28 percent win for Reeves, a pharmaceutical company owner.

“The Republicans pumped in a lot of resources and didn’t take anything for granted and got a big victory,” Syler points out.

Make no mistake, the outcomes of this fall’s election will be about President Trump, just as it was for former President Obama in his two mid-terms, Syler says.

“Tennessee is a little insulated if you’re a Republican from a big-wave election because President Trump’s numbers, his job approval has remained higher here than nationally,” says Syler, former chief of staff for longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, who fought off a red tide in the mid-1990s during former President Bill Clinton’s first term.

It’s too early to tell, though, whether a wave election will take place this year, and it could be late October when early voting starts and even the first week of November before the most important trends take hold, Syler adds.

In 1994, a “wave election” broke extremely late and put numerous Republicans into office, enabling Newt Gingrich to become speaker of the U.S. House.

The counter punch

Republican legislative leaders in Tennessee are confident they’ll withstand any hint of a “blue wave.”

Lt. Gov. McNally says he is “fairly sure” the 28-5 Republican lead will remain in place in the upper chamber.

“I know in the Senate we’re going to be active in all the races and not leave any by the wayside,” McNally continues.

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron and House Majority Leader Glen Casada agree, saying polling is putting generic Republicans and Democrats almost in a dead heat.

“So long as the economy continues to increase and improve I don’t think you’ll see anything, not only in Tennessee but across the nation,” Casada says.

Ketron acknowledges Kelsey is in for a tough race this November, based on polling numbers in the Memphis. But he says, “We’re prepared to defend all of them and keep our supermajority in the Senate,” no matter what the financial cost.

Pody is more organized this summer and fall, knocking on doors and calling on local leaders to build support, “so we feel fairly confident that we’ll hang on to his seat,” explains Ketron, who is running for Rutherford County mayor and won’t be returning to the Legislature in 2019.

Ketron contends the economy’s strong performance, including the Fed’s confidence in raising the prime interest rate and a U.S.-North Korea denuclearization agreement, are both victories for Trump and push his stock higher as fall approaches.

Pody and Republicans in other strong Republican districts where Trump won 65 percent of the vote in 2016 say the state’s low unemployment, around a historic low of 3.5 percent, plays in their favor, because Tennesseans trust their financial acumen.

Even though public support is high for expanding Medicaid, it isn’t translating into the voting booths where Republican legislators have declined to tap into federal funds generated by the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance for some 290,000 uninsured Tennesseans.

Predicting that money will dry up soon, Pody contends states relying on expensive federal programs will find themselves in a predicament.

“Either they’ve got to cut those programs and cut them from their citizens or pick up the cost,” he says.

But while Republicans boast about the economy and pooh-pooh the expansion of Medicaid, Democrats are sticking with the message of using those federal tax dollars paid by Tennesseans to catch people in a coverage gap.

“I think Tennesseans are fed up. They’re tired of the mess. There’s a mess in Washington, but the issues and legislation coming out of Nashville affect people more directly and people feel it more readily,” says state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat unopposed this fall. “So I think we’ll just be talking about the issues that matter to Tennessee families, like the hospital closures, the lack of expansion of Medicaid, over $5 billion-plus has been turned away, just these types of issues at the state level really have a direct impact on people.”

Clemmons adds Democrats are working hard and raising money to pick up seats this year for the first time in a while.

His view, of course, is countered by Republican leaders such as Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, a former House Republican Caucus leader who was expected to ward off Democratic challenger David Jones.

But McCormick announced Monday he would not seek re-election after accepting a job that would require him to relocate to Nashville.

Republicans now have less than a week to qualify a candidate for the Aug. 2 primary.

Even if Democrats pick off a couple of Republican seats, McCormick thinks Republicans will win in a couple of areas where Democrats are vulnerable.

Longtime Democratic House members Craig Fitzhugh, a gubernatorial candidate, and Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville are not returning to the General Assembly.

With that in mind and even with a “blue wave” potentially building nationwide, McCormick says, “In Tennessee I think it’ll just crash.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald.

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