It’s safe to say there’s no path to winning an election in Williamson County that doesn’t include Republican voters.
Conservatives have dominated local politics for two decades in Tennessee’s wealthiest county, home to some of the state’s most powerful politicians, including Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn.
The political makeup of the 63rd state legislative district is such that Elizabeth Madeira and Brad Fiscus, both running to replace incumbent Republican Rep. Glen Casada, can’t win without flipping some people who have voted for him before.
Casada is facing voters for the first time since his brief stint as House Speaker last year, cut short by ethical violations and misconduct. Now, his challengers are trying to organize a critical mass of conservatives alienated by their representative and the GOP.
“People want fewer career politicians who just stay there their whole career and accumulate power,” said Madeira, who some say has a better chance to unseat Casada than any Democrat in years.
So how do you appeal to those voters?
“You continue to remind them of his record,” said Fiscus, a member of the Williamson County School Board, who is running as an Independent.
“[Casada is an] embarrassment to our district and to our county,” Fiscus told The Lookout. “He’s not shown that he’s willing to represent what they need or want.”
Casada has represented the district since 2001 and has built up a formidable campaign without having to face any serious competition. Critics say he, like many Republicans across Tennessee and the United States, has become increasingly right-wing and unaccountable in recent years.
“He has been emboldened to be even more extreme,” said Courtenay Rogers, who ran for the seat in 2016. “There is no accountability. Why are we okay with that?”
Neither Casada nor Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson, who represents Williamson County’s Senate district 23, responded to requests for comment.
Breaking up fights, cleaning up messes
Madeira is herself like many of the voters she needs to win.
She’s a part time school and Sunday school director, and is the mother of three young kids. She’s also a former Republican who says the party lost her confidence after its inaction on gun control after the 2012 mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn.
“The Republican Party of today just doesn’t match my values,” she told The Lookout.
“As a mom of three I’m used to making compromises, breaking up fights and cleaning up messes,” she says in a campaign video, walking into her house while holding one of her kids on her hip.
Her priorities in office include expanding Medicaid, strengthening public schools and restoring integrity and ethics.
“We’re refusing to receive back our own federal tax dollars we’ve already spent,” she said of the Medicaid expansion. She said she’s pushing ideas that “most voters agree on no matter their party affiliation.”
She volunteered in the Democratic presidential primary for Pete Buttigieg, who pitched himself as a moderate able to attract conservatives, after promoting much more progressive ideas early in his campaign.
“One thing that Pete was good at was talking to people all across the spectrum,” Madeira said. “My goal is to build consensus to bring everyone along.”
In early September, she reported raising over $100,000 and her second quarter finance report showed her with $54,974 on hand, strong figures for an upstart Democrat. But that’s still far less than Casada’s $368,643.
She has the endorsements of the Sierra Club, the Tennessee AFL-CIO and the Tennessee Democratic Rural Caucus, among other groups.
“I want a mom and a woman to represent me in the statehouse,” said Rogers, who is now a Williamson County Democratic Party official.
When Rogers ran in 2016, she lost to Casada roughly 28% to 72%, despite solid fundraising.
She said she thinks the economic and population growth in the county, particularly in Nolensville, combined with expanded voting rights, could make Democrats competitive over the next decade.
“Tennessee is not a red state, it’s a non-voting state,” Rogers said. “Elizabeth has the best chance of a Democrat that we have seen in decades.”
Socially progressive, fiscally conservative
Running as an independent, Brad Fiscus believes he can win some Republicans repelled by the letter “D,” and says he has more experience than Madeira.
“I know it’s a harder route to run (as an Independent) because our country has really been pushed into partisanship,” said Fiscus. “I’m a fiscal conservative but socially progressive on some of those issues that we tend to politicize but shouldn’t have been.”
He’s an active member of the United Methodist Church and a longtime wrestling coach. He says he supports the second amendment, but would pursue some reforms.
“I think we should just be responsible with our guns,” he said. “I’m responsible with my car, right?”
Much of the Williamson County School Board member’s agenda is focused on public education. He said he wants to increase public school funding and increase teacher pay in order to attract and retain talent.
According to campaign finance reports, Fiscus has raised $18,722.
“[I offer] the best opportunity to win the Republican vote and a coalition of Democrats,” he said. “We’ve got to move away from this one-side supermajority and create balance.”