Republican state Senator-elect Steve Dickerson may be the model Democratic candidate.
Perhaps not in terms of policy — although he and his District 20 opponent, Democrat Phillip North, did sound awfully similar on a variety of issues — but certainly in patience and dedication to a multi-year process that cultivates winning candidates.
Dickerson was first a loser. In 2010, he came out of a Republican primary and faced Democrat Douglas Henry, then a nearly 40-year incumbent, knowing he had hardly a chance to win. But, as he told The City Paper in September, he had already committed to making two runs. So two years after that loss, he again emerged from the Republican primary, and this time he won easily, with a nine-point margin that allowed his campaign to hit send on a victory statement little more than an hour after the polls closed.
There is no doubt that Dickerson’s victory was assisted by Republican-led redistricting, which drew him out of a race against a Democratic incumbent and into a dramatically redrawn District 20 that now leans right. Nevertheless, he is also an example of the Tennessee Republican Party’s vibrant bench of candidates who are willing and able to capitalize on the experience of a loss.
Democratic candidates in the state are getting plenty of that experience. On Tuesday, 44 non-incumbent Democratic candidates lost state House and Senate races, a stinging result that left the party as a historical minority in both chambers of the state legislature. But for a party whose inability to find suitable candidates has been on display nationally (sometimes spectacularly, see: Mark Clayton), some of this year’s losers could be 2014’s experienced campaigners.
“Of the candidates who ran and maybe didn’t have a successful night, do I think that we’ll see some of those candidates back?” said Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese. “Absolutely. You certainly have not seen the last of a bunch of those candidates, I’m sure.”
While celebrating victories in “tough open-seat races” by Gloria Johnson, Bo Mitchell and Jason Powell, Puttbrese said the races that didn’t go the party’s way have produced candidates and staff who will be better the next time around.
“Wilt Chamberlain didn’t become a great basketball player overnight,” he said. “It took a lot of practice. And there’s no better practice in politics than actually running a campaign. So, for a first-time candidate, it’s a steep learning curve. It’s a very steep learning curve. Now we’ve got a lot more candidates and political staff who have survived one more cycle, and some have come out of this cycle with great experience and can be a great asset to these candidates who maybe are going to be looking at a tough race down the road.”
Puttbrese also said that Democratic candidates running in strong Republican districts could have softened some political ground for future candidates. By campaigning on Democratic ideas in districts where Republicans generally run unopposed, he said they’ve introduced a message that won’t be as foreign next time around.
It may all be wishful thinking, but as Tennessee Democrats look at the state map, that may be all they have.
• First, fewer people voted in this presidential election than they did four years ago. In 2008, 2,599,749 were cast here. In 2012, 2,406,140. Apathy certainly played a part — Obama supporters had less enthusiasm and little else to support in bigger races — but an alternative reason might just be Sarah Palin. Four years ago she energized the GOP base in Tennessee and nationally, she connected with voters in an unprecedented manner. Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, did not have the impact that Palin had.
• Much has been made about Davidson County electing its first Republican state senator, Steve Dickerson, but does that mean a breach in the Dem stronghold? In 2008 Obama got 158,423 votes compared to McCain’s 102,915. Last week Obama got 142,854 versus Romney’s 97,523. That is a more than 15,000 vote drop-off for Davidson County Democrats, but only 5,000 for Republicans. GOP voters didn’t drop off as much, a potentially alarming number for county Democrats.
• As bad of a year as Democrats had, they now know what their rock-bottom, we’re-always-gonna-get-these-people base number is: 30 percent. Those are the people who voted for Mark Clayton, the disavowed candidate who won the Democratic primary on the strength
of being first on the ticket. Clayton got a quarter of a million fewer votes than Obama did,
despite both being listed as Democrats.