Tennessee Democratic officials, professionals weigh on needed structural change

By: - November 20, 2020 5:32 am
The House Democratic Caucus honors National Go Red Day for Women’s Health in Feb. 2019. (Photo: Facebook)

The House Democratic Caucus honors National Go Red Day for Women’s Health in Feb. 2019. (Photo: Facebook)

It’s a Tennessee political tradition unlike any other over the last decade. Democrats suffer election losses, and stakeholders conduct a post mortem to figure out what went wrong and what can be done differently next time.

Since, 2008, the losses have rained down on Democrats in legislative races and in statewide battles for governor and the U.S. Senate.

Although Democrats earned a notable win earlier this month when Heidi Campbell defeated Sen. Steve Dickerson for a Davidson County Senate seat, 2020 was largely more of the same. Republicans still own a super majority in the legislature, in addition to the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of the state’s nine U.S. House seats.

To examine how Democrats’ fortunes can improve in future elections, the Tennessee Lookout interviewed elected officials, operatives, campaign professionals and fundraisers about what should come next.

And from those interviews, there are clearly areas where improvements could lead to campaign victories in the future elections. But, the advice on how to win more races comes with important context: Tennessee is not going to be a presidential battleground anytime soon the way border states Georgia and North Carolina are. The supermajority enjoyed by the GOP will remain safe for some time.

Resetting expectations may be sobering for Democrats, but stakeholders say it’s important to recognize there isn’t a magic wand that can be waved to magically turn Tennessee into a swing state. The room for growth will take patience, according to insiders.

With that in mind, here is what the prominent Democrats and campaign operatives view can be done to achieve improvement in Tennessee.

Jason Freeman, political director of SEIU Local 205: Improve campaign infrastructure

A common theme among operatives on the ground in 2020 was that Democrats need to do a better job collaborating among campaigns. That means city candidates working with state candidates and federal campaigns to get out the vote, knock on doors and fundraise. Freeman expanded on that and the need to implement a modern campaign structure, which have been built by Democrats in neighboring states.

Jason Freeman (Photo: submitted)
Jason Freeman (Photo: submitted)

“What is missing in Tennessee is a modern structure that exists in other states. State parties staff up dramatically in places like Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina and run massive GOTV efforts (Get Out The Vote). At times, there can be more than a hundred people working on the ground, organizing volunteers, knocking doors, turning out voters.

“That structure also helps candidates, from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket, work together to maximize their resources. None of that centralized, coordinated activity is happening here.

“Without it, it is very difficult for even great candidates to win in this type of environment. And it sends a signal to national donors and national committees that we aren’t a good investment. That has to change.”

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro: Engage communities 365 days a year, not just campaign season

Yarbro said he believes candidates need to have a presence in communities they serve not just during campaign season, but throughout the year. He called the problem “short term chronic underinvestment.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro during 2020 legislative session. (Photo: submitted)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro during 2020 legislative session. (Photo: submitted)

“You can’t just parachute into a community in August, run a campaign and hope to win in November,” Yarbro said. “We need to recruit candidates and leaders for the long term, register and engage voters 12 months a year and then run strong campaigns. If we skip to that final step every two years, we’re not going to win.”

Yarbro agreed with other leaders that Democrats have room to improve on campaign basics.

“There are lots of dollars that get spent in offices in Nashville that are never felt on the ground, but lots of basic needs on the ground that go entirely unmet,” he said. “While we definitely need to marshal more overall resources, it may be even more important in the short term to streamline. You can’t execute on anything if you’re not handling the basic blocking and tackling of politics.”

Yarbro believed that Tennessee Democrats have to do a better job not just of recruiting women and minorities to positions of power, but giving those candidates access to fundraising and infrastructure.

“Historically, Democrats have not done a good job recruiting women and minorities into the big-time strategic, campaign and fundraising roles,” said Yarbro, who was elected to the state Senate in 2014. “If your plan for the future doesn’t fix that, it will fail. Having (state Sen.) Raumesh Akbari leading the Senate Caucus and Heidi Campbell leading the top-targeted Senate campaign was a remarkable strength, not a hindrance.”

Yarbro said before Democrats fixate on who should lead the state party, they should build the kind of foundation that Stacy Abrams helped construct in Georgia over years to turn that state into a toss-up.

“At their worst, debates about the TNDP are like people arguing about what color the house should eventually be when they’re staring at a hole in the ground. We need some focus on building a strong foundation.”

Metro Councilwoman Sharon Hurt: collaborate with local candidates

Hurt was reelected as an at-large council member representing all of Davidson County. As the leader of the nonprofit business advocacy group Jefferson United Merchants Partnership, Hurt has deep ties to Nashville’s business community.

Having won county-wide elections twice, Hurt would seem to be an ideal candidate for higher office. But she said she’s felt a lack of connection to Democratic leadership to build relationships and a fundraising base that would enable her to run for that next office. Hurt is president-elect of the National Black Caucus of Local Officials for the National League of Cities.

Sharon Hurt, (Nashville) Metro Councilmember at Large (Photo: Metro Council)
Sharon Hurt, (Nashville) Metro Councilmember at Large (Photo: Metro Council)

She said Democrats in Tennessee should do a better job of supporting minority candidates, specifically minority women.

“The Democratic (establishment), they were supporting me as a candidate, but they didn’t offer me any assistance in my campaign and providing me with people, none of that,” Hurt said. “I don’t know if it was lack of my engagement with the Democraitc Party and their team. So I’m not putting it all on them.

“But as the representative to support, they did not. I know with me being an incumbent, I thought I should have. But it seemed their support went behind mostly (Councilwoman Burkley Allen). I agree wholeheartedly they should embrace minority candidates, and not only that, but they should embrace good candidates. The results of the election proved I was a good candidate.”

Hurt said that working with local candidates will help mold them, and improve those candidates so they can run for higher office. It’s about creating a development system that gives minorities and women access fundraising, infrastructure and campaign staffers required to run for higher office.

“You get that candidate that runs beyond this level,” Hurt said. “I think we have to start thinking in the future, ‘Who are those candidates? Who can we put forth? Who can we position and help propel them to that next level.’ I think that is exactly what has to happen. I believe in passing the baton. When you win a relay race, it’s really about how well you place the baton in that next person’s hand. You grab that baton and you can run on.”

At their worst, debates about TNDP are like people arguing about what color the house should eventually be when they're staring at a hole in the ground.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

Katharine Heriges, political consultant, improve campaign infrastructure, focus on voters:

Heriges worked on three state legislative races this cycle, including Campbell’s successful Senate bid. She also worked on the campaigns of two Democrats who narrowly lost: Virginia Couch for House District 18 and Glenn Scruggs for Senate District 10.

Heriges said first on her mind is building better campaign infrastructure. That means more money to hire talented campaign managers and give those managers the resources they need.

Katharine Heriges (Photo: submitted)
Katharine Heriges (Photo: submitted)

“There are areas where Democrats need to work on, and first, for me is better campaign infrastructure,” she said. “That means supporting operatives. It was pulling teeth trying to find people who wanted to work on these campaigns in some cases. There is not enough money to pay campaign managers in a way they can sustain a living, work in the offseason and then come back and work in the next campaign.”

Heriges said that she believes Democrats fielded a talented and diverse mix of candidates this election. But, she said Democratic leaders should fixate less on recruiting candidates and more on reaching voters.

“Number two… We had a diverse lineup of candidates. We are getting better in that regard. But candidates can’t move mountains by themselves. We need investments in voters, period, and young voters and creating frequent voters, lifetime voters. Making people feel like their vote counts. Engaging communities of color year-round, instead of just election season. Tennessee Democrats have emphasized finding great candidates and it shows, but going forward, investing in the voters will need to be the priority.

“Investing in voters, investing in community groups that don’t necessarily have capital D Democrats next to their name, investing in those groups so they can engage voters and be involved in the process is so important.”

Bill Freeman, Nashville businessman and leading Democratic fundraiser: Relate to voters from all corners of Tennessee

Bill Freeman (Photo: submitted)
Bill Freeman (Photo: submitted)

Freeman told the Tennessee Lookout he’s focusing his efforts right now on where he can make a difference, and that means Georgia, not his home state.

Freeman said he plans to raise money for the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

As he looks ahead for what Democrats need to improve, Freeman said he is focusing on the next Tennessee Democratic Party chairperson after current chairwoman Mary Mancini announced she will not seek the position next year. Freeman said it’s important for Democrats to choose leaders who are relatable to rural voters.

“Democrats, whether it’s the state party chair or whoever runs for office, need leaders who can resonate with and relate to rural voters,” Freeman said.

Mariah Phillips, Democratic candidate for state House District 37 in Rutherford County, focus on voter registration

The data shows Democrats recruited a strong candidate in Phillips, the educator and businesswoman who ran for Congress two years ago against incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais.

Phillips has showed prowess as a fundraiser in both her congressional and state house races, and recently churned out more votes than Democrats earned for the same state House seat in 2016, the last time it was contested. However, Phillips still lost to incumbent Charlie Baum by about 5,000 votes and a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.

Mariah Phillips (Photo: submitted)
Mariah Phillips (Photo: submitted)

In fast-growing Rutherford County, Democrats saw a glimmer of hope, as Joe Biden earned about 6 percent more votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Phillips said those improvements show that voter registration should be a priority.

She acknowledged that Tennessee may be a ways off from becoming a battleground the way Georgia has. But, Phillips argued that focusing on growing the voter base in areas already showing improvement is critical.

There’s no messaging strategy that can help Tennessee Democrats when there are some counties in which President Donald Trump won 85 percent of the vote.

“In my race, we ended up getting 80 percent turnout,” Phillips said. “We moved the needle some, but not enough. We turned out voters in record numbers, but so did the other side.”

Although Phillips and Baum saw 30,000 voters in their race, the district only has about 36,000 registered voters.

“What needs to happen in Tennessee is we need to make voting more accessible for all of our citizens,” Phillips said. “And we need to make voter registration easier. We know the state of Tennessee has done everything it can in the current administration to actually penalize incorrect ballots, and actually making it illegal to run voter registration drives and happen to turn in incomplete or inaccurate voter registration forms.

“I wasn’t allowed to send absentee ballot applications. I’m not talking about filling it out for them. I could not send them a link about how to get an absentee ballot in 2020. That’s just crazy. Until we can get more people registered to vote, especially in the seats we can win, and I do believe Rutherford County is a place that can be won because of the demographic shift that has happened here, it will be a challenge. Of course those people aren’t registering to vote because they feel their vote doesn’t matter, so we have to do a better job of convincing them their vote does matter, especially at the state level.”

Rodriguez Wright, co-founder of Nashville-based political consulting firm Leo Operations, get to know voters year-round: improve relationships in rural communities

Wright has worked on campaigns across the state, and played a key role on several Nashville campaigns including Judge Allegra Walker, Judge Kelvin Jones, mayoral candidate Howard Gentry, council candidates Emily Benedict, Joy Styles and Burkley Allen, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman and most recently school board candidate John Little.

Rodriguez "Rod" Wright (Photo: submitted)
Rodriguez “Rod” Wright (Photo: submitted)

Wright said Democrats have done a good job of developing a deep bench of candidates in Davidson and Shelby Counties, but there’s room for improvement in rural parts of the state. He agreed with Yarbro that candidates can’t drop in the election season and expect to win over voters.

“They need to worry about the rural communities,” Wright said. “The Democrats are in Memphis and Davidson County are doing well. I found working in those races outside Memphis there has been no attention given to the rural communities.

“It can’t be the four or five months before the election. You have to find candidates who are plugged in to their communities. It could be one or two Dems in some races, that’s OK. Then breed them, do monthly check-ins with these candidates, see how they are attacking the ground game. There’s things you can do, it just takes time. But I would say it takes investment and having a presence in those communities.”


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.