Commentary: Tennessee Democrats need to take off the rose-colored glasses

Democrats are crediting Stacey Abrams for the success of President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia and establishing the state's battleground status by blazing a path through Atlanta's northern suburbs. Tennessee does not have the equivalent of Abrams or her organization. (Photo: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

Many Tennesseans, particularly Democrats, are rejoicing after Joe Biden clinched Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes Saturday, giving him the required 270 votes to win the presidency. 

President Donald Trump has brought a particular kind of misery to Americans who saw gains in immigration policy, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and healthcare trimmed back or threatened. 

He horrified many of us with his affection for dictators including Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un and appalled us with his disrespect for veterans. 

Count me as one of those satisfied that Trump has lost. I’ve made no secret I think he is the antithesis of the American ideal and the view of Americans as protectors of the weak. 

But I didn’t celebrate Saturday and my relief is tempered.

Nothing in Tennessee has changed. We still have a supermajority Republican general assembly, which enacts legislation designed to hurt Tennesseans. 

Democratic myths — that high turnout helps Democrats, for instance — were proven wrong in the 2020 election.

Sure, more people than ever voted, a not-insignificant fact for our state, which typically ranks 49th in voter turnout. 

But Trump won Tennessee by a margin of 60.7 to Joe Biden’s 37.4. That’s virtually no different from 2016, when Trump won Tennessee by 60.7% to Hillary Clinton’s 34.7%. Fewer than 10 states voted for Trump with higher percentages.

For years, we’ve heard Hillary Clinton was a historically unpopular candidate with a high percentage of negative perceptions, and that Joe Biden would fare much better here. In fact, he got less than three percent more of the vote than Clinton did. 

Tennessee Democrats like to say “we aren’t a red state, we’re a non-voting state.” 

I’ve got news: We are a red state. 

The myth that high turnout helps Democrats? Wrong. The notion that Tennesseans will vote for Democrats if they are on the ballot, run smart campaigns and educate voters? Also wrong. 

Out of 132 General Assembly seats, 115 were up for election. Democrats flipped one seat, and that was Senate District 20 in already-blue Davidson County. Democratic candidates who were natives of their community, involved in neighborhood issues and causes, raised substantial campaign funds and spent on professional tools all lost. Only one, Gabby Salinas in Memphis, came within spitting distance, losing by less than 500 votes.

Since 2010, Tennessee Republicans have held a trifecta – control of the Governor’s seat, the state house and the state senate. 

Saturday, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini announced she wouldn’t run for a fourth two-year term, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, I come not to bury Mancini but to praise her. She’s gotten a lot of heat from her own party for her performance and sometimes from me: I ran against her for the role of chair two years ago. 

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini (Photo: Twitter)

Sure, there are things she could have done better, but local Democrats need to acknowledge there’s a national perception problem the chair can’t fix. The Democratic National Committee has no messaging that speaks to most Southerners and whoever the new chair of the TNDP will need to acknowledge that. 

The new chair may also have to realize that all the talk of regaining the rural vote is talk only. Chris Hale, a Democratic congressional candidate who also ran for TNDP chair in 2019, has made outreach to rural and conservative voters a base of his campaigns. He garnered 33% to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ 66% on Nov. 3.

Georgia is getting a lot of attention for flipping to Biden this year and both U.S. Senate seats are in play. Tennessee Democrats can take a page from Stacey Abrams’  book and focus on voters of color and disengaged voters but even so, they need to realize Abrams started her voter registration project fresh off her very slim loss in the 2018 governor’s race. Tennessee has no Abrams yet, no galvanizing Democrat who has come close to winning a statewide race.

How Tennessee Democrats continue to wear rose-colored glasses is beyond me, but it’s time for them to take the glasses off. Simply changing the state party chair and recycling old sayings won’t restore the party to its once strong stature and it likely won’t bring any significant gains in the next election cycle.