Tennessee's Democrats hit rock bottom, handing the GOP unprecedented political power in what once was a blue state

Tennessee's Democrats hit rock bottom, handing the GOP unprecedented political power in what once was a blue state

November 11th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

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In a generation, Tennessee Democrats have gone from controlling state government to denouncing their own U.S. Senate nominee, a man The Washington Post described as "America's worst candidate."

Before last week, Tennessee Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature, the governor's mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and the House delegation. They maintained all that and gained on Election Day.

Statehouse Republicans will begin January's session with what Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called "super duper" majorities in the state House and Senate.

Thirty-five years ago, Democrats enjoyed all of the above. They have tumbled downhill ever since, and many consider Mark Clayton -- who ran and lost badly against Republican Sen. Bob Corker -- the unseen ditch at the bottom.

"We haven't done a good job of building our bench," Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said. "We are certainly rebuilding."

Benefiting from being the first person in an alphabetical list of little-known candidates, Clayton in August won a once-in-a-lifetime chance to square off against Corker. But it wasn't until Aug. 5 -- the day after Clayton scored a nomination once held by Andrew Jackson, Estes Kefauver and Al Gore -- that most Democrats realized their nominee opposed abortion rights, same-sex marriage and most of President Barack Obama's policies.

Worst of all for Volunteer State liberals: The 36-year-old flooring installer moonlighted as vice president of Public Advocate of the United States, an anti-gay Virginia-based organization that was branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"Nobody vetted the candidates," said Dr. Mary Headrick, a Democrat who unsuccessfully campaigned as U.S. representative for the 3rd Congressional District. "It was a party failure."

After firm denouncements from Forrester, Clayton sparked little statewide media attention, but he attracted the occasional national journalist looking for a weird story.

In October, The Washington Post caught up with Clayton and chronicled "America's worst candidate" -- no campaign events, $278 in fundraising and conspiracy theories about Google.

"In Tennessee, Clayton's unlikely run is providing an absurdist coda to a long Democratic disaster," according to the Post. "Something like falling down a flight of stairs onto a whoopee cushion."

Six years after narrowly edging up-and-coming Congressman Harold Ford Jr., Corker secured a second term by 35 points Tuesday, validating the Post article's prophecy that Tennessee Democrats have "fallen so far that it can't even run a good loser." Or properly denounce him, for that matter.

Despite national ridicule and Forrester's bad-mouthing, Clayton won 30 percent statewide and 699,000 votes, enough to fill nearly seven Neyland Stadiums.

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said "plenty of folks" didn't get the memo on Clayton or simply voted for Democrats down-ballot. He compared the Senate election to "a bad penny."

"One side was as bad as the other," he said.

Party officials, candidates and other Democratic stakeholders agree -- it's a long way up from rock bottom, but there's only one direction to go.

"Party loyalty is equivalent to your cellphone carrier," Headrick said. "You better have performance or you're going to switch."

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In 2007, for the first time in 138 years, Republicans took control of the Tennessee Senate. A year later, Republicans won the House, but independent Kent Williams complicated their efforts after he joined with Democrats to elect himself speaker in January 2009.

The Tennessee GOP wave eventually solidified and turned into a tsunami this year, as Obama lost the state by nearly 20 points, a bigger margin than his 15-point loss to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.

Down-ticket, state House Republicans saw an already strong majority rise from 64 to 70 in the 99-member chamber, pushing them over the two-thirds, filibuster-proof edge. It's even bleaker for Democrats in the 33-seat Senate, where Republican membership soared from 20 to 26.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said the tea party movement and GOP-led redistricting last year played major roles in obliterating Democrats. But he also said Tennessee Republicans aren't struggling with the same issues other party stalwarts are facing with blacks, Latinos and women in "purple" states like North Carolina and Virginia.

"Tennessee is ideal country for the Republican demographic," Oppenheimer said. "Once you get out of Memphis and Nashville, it's not very diverse and it's very white. It's suburban Republican and religiously conservative, and that's driving a lot of what's going on. Many women are stay-at-home religious conservatives."

Democratic legislators said they expect GOP leaders to run the table without acknowledging the opposing party's existence.

"Some Democrats tell me they'll reach across the aisle," said Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga. "I don't know what they expect on the other side. They may not have a hand by the end of it."

Meanwhile, Republicans show no signs of letting up.

"Our supermajorities in the General Assembly must not only be defended, but grown," Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney wrote in a letter to supporters last week.

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It may not make sense to those watching from the outside, but Forrester and other Democrats say they have Republicans right where they want them.

In the party's business plan, titled "A New Path Forward," Vanderbilt polling data shows the GOP-controlled Legislature's approval rating dropping 25 points from January to November 2011.

Forrester said he believes GOP popularity sank because Republicans dominated a legislative session that included a "Don't Say Gay" bill, animosity toward evolution and a guns-in-parking-lots debate. He said more conservative social legislation in 2013 will bring Tennessee's independents back into Democratic waters.

Beyond that, the business plan calls for a focus on complex "metrics" -- data-driven strategies that focus on media outreach, fundraising and candidate recruitment. But Forrester isn't running for a third term and a new chairman could upend his best-laid plans.

"We need new state leadership," Smith said, "and we're going to get it soon."

In January, seven Republicans will represent Hamilton County in Nashville. The lone Democrat is Rep. JoAnne Favors, who bested Brown in the August primary after Republicans combined the pair's districts.

Favors could not be reached for comment.

"I see difficult times ahead," Brown said.