As bad as the 2010 elections are expected to be for the Democratic Party nationally, they are looking infinitely worse for Tennessee Democrats. Next year at this time, Democrats in the state are likely to be completely out of power.
The state legislature, which remained a Democrat stronghold for generations (even while in the minority), will be completely out of reach. The executive residence, which has been held masterfully by Phil Bredesen through the slowly building Republican realignment, will be gone. And with the retirements of Rep. John Tanner and Rep. Bart Gordon, Democrats will likely lose their majority in the state’s congressional delegation.
As if this across-the-board minority status weren’t enough, the Democrats can look forward to Republican-controlled redistricting.
In politics, they say, the pendulum always swings back. But for Tennessee Democrats, that pendulum is in another hemisphere. While Democrats will continue to hold some seats in the legislature and may keep the 8th District House seat, the party can expect to become a minority presence concentrated in the urban centers of Nashville and Memphis.
The once eclectic, purple state of Tennessee is, in other words, becoming a strong and potentially boring shade of crimson. The state’s Republican Party is increasingly ideological and partisan, and the state’s conservative, pragmatic Democratic power base is slowly eroding. The interesting tapestry of Tennessee politics made up of Howard Baker Republicans and Ned McWherter Democrats is being replaced by tea party anger and resentment and the slow evolution of rural, culturally conservative voters moving from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
To remedy or mitigate the implosion in the short term, Democrats need to neutralize the focus on social issues and get voters thinking more about economic ones.
“As long as middle- and lower-class whites continue to vote their prayer books over their pocket books, the state will continue to become ever more red,” says Marcus Pohlmann, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “If the religious issues could somehow be neutralized, the lower-income yellow-dog Democrats of rural and East Tennessee might be brought back to the fold via economic issues.”
But what sort of Democrat could accomplish that? Perhaps the party should consider the 2008 U.S. Senate campaign of Mike Padgett. Sure, Padgett came in third to Bob Tuke and another guy who didn’t even campaign, but the reasons had more to do with an inconsequential primary and the inevitability of a Lamar Alexander win than with the quality of Padgett’s campaign.
Characterizing himself as a “Southern Appalachian Democrat,” Padgett was implicitly a cultural conservative, but his economic program was definitively progressive populist. That’s the kind of Democrat who may be able to win in Tennessee — one who can appeal to the economic needs of the working class without offending their cultural sensibilities.
Gov. Phil Bredesen was unique in his ability to out-Republican a GOP opponent and get away with it. Progressives are right when they say that there’s no point in trying to be Republican lite. Given the choice between a Democrat acting like a Republican and a real Republican, voters will choose the Republican. But that doesn’t mean that Democrats need to come at the electorate with a standard-issue liberal portfolio either.
This tea party movement, this seething anger, is being driven and co-opted by Republicans. But at its core, the outrage isn’t ideological. It isn’t even necessarily anti-government. It’s just anti-this-government.
Those caught up in tea party hysteria are the kind of voters Ross Perot captured in 1992. Two years later, without Perot, these foaming, vaguely culturally conservative, middle-income voters went Republican.
But these voters, unlike their tea party activist manipulators, don’t give a damn about Edmund Burke, Ludwig Von Mises or Ayn Rand. They want jobs and a government that makes sense to them — that’s it. As long as Democratic candidates don’t explicitly agitate their culturally conservative sensibilities and can deflect the appeals Republicans make on those hot-button social issues, these voters can be won over with economic arguments.
Democrats don’t have to follow Republicans down the road of rigid ideological partisanship. Tennessee’s culturally conservative voters out there simply want, as the cliché goes, someone to feel their pain. In the absence of economically populist, culturally conservative Democratic leadership, they’ll take the tea party agitators.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com’s political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net