Dec. 11, 2020- Andrea Bond Johnson in downtown Brownsville, Tennessee. Bond-Johnson was shocked when she lost a second time to Republican Chris Hurt in the race for State House District 82 in western Tennessee (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
The election is over. The volunteers shuffle around the subdued campaign headquarters, sipping coffee and stare at the television screen, as if willing the numbers to change.
But they did not and the stark numbers reveal the winners and losers.
The victors – almost all Republicans – will maintain their positions and the newly elected step into them, but what about the Democratic candidates that failed?
What do they do once the counting is done?
Tennessee is a tough state for a Democrat to win, though optimistic Democrats note that new blue blood is moving into the Volunteer State and they are attracting disenfranchised Republicans.
Unsuccessful candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Tennessee House and Senate knew they would have a hard fight, but many were surprised at how tough it was. The COVID-19 crisis, the contentious relationship between President Donald Trump and Democrats, which filtered down to supporters, made it a difficult year.
Kiran Sreepada ran a strong campaign to defeat entrenched Republican Congressman Mark Green in Tennessee District 7 of the U.S. House of Representatives, but it failed dramatically with 95,839 (27.3 percent) to Green’s 245,288 (69.9 percent).
He took some consolation in the fact that he fared better than the last Democrat who took on Green and failed. Sreepada received more votes than Democrat Justin Kanew did in 2018, but because of a higher turnout, he ended with a lower percentage of the vote than Kanew. In 2018, Kanew received 81,661 votes (32.1 percent) compared to Green’s 170,071 votes (66.9 percent.) Green attracted many more votes in 2020 than in 2018, perhaps due to the pull of a president at the top of the ticket.
Still, Sreepada said he and his workers did all they could.
“It was a shock to all of us,” he said. “As hard as we worked, as much as we did right, and considering how little our opponent campaigned, we thought we would do better. To be honest, we did not expect to win, but we hoped we would have drawn more votes than we did.”
Sreepada followed the logic of the national Democratic party: increase voter turnout and ride the blue tide to victory, but it didn’t work out that way.
“There was a higher voter turnout this time, but a lot of them were Republican,” he said. “This happened across the country, the blue tide did not roll in.”
Sreepada is proud that he and Green ran a clean race, never resorting to negative campaigning. Their race did not devolve into name-calling and mudslinging.
Sreepada said Green actually hardly campaigned at all, merely ran on his comfortable record as an incumbent Republican and President Donald Trump loyalist. Like many Republican candidates, Green would not debate.
But Green clearly won and Sreepada conceded on election night.
“I told everyone to go home, have a drink and take a few days off,” he said. “I did not follow my own advice. I went home, had a drink, kicked back and watched ‘The Mandalorian’ and caught up on my reading. Then I started going over the numbers, looking for answers.”
The party pulled in 20 percent more votes than Kanew did in 2018, but still lost.
“The number of Democrats in the state has increased, but so have the number of Republicans,” he said. “The Republicans are not growing as fast as we are, but they were undercounted. And they came out to vote.”
Sreepada thinks things may have been different if not for the specter of the COVID-19 virus that hung over 2020.
“We started campaigning in February, knocking on doors, but we shut down on March 6,” he said. “Instead of in-person meetings with voters, we worked the phones. I personally made 150 to 200 calls a day.”
There were other factors at work that harmed Sreepada — his race and religion.
He said he does not believe those factors cost him the election, but they were important.
“We got a lot of e-mails and comments on social media from people asking if I was a natural-born American citizen and other roundabout questions regarding my religious beliefs,” he said. “When the first question people ask is if I am an American citizen, I have to wonder if they don’t realize only citizens can run for Congress?”
“What they wanted to know was, ‘Are you a Muslim and will you implement Sharia law?” he said.
For the record, Sreepada is a practicing Hindu and the American-born son of Indian parents who moved to the United States and became naturalized citizens.
“I think it would have been better if I was able to meet voters face to face and explain that I am running for Congress because I live here, not India,” he said.
He plans to keep active in political issues in Tennessee.
“It will be interesting to see what happens when Joe Biden takes office, particularly if the Senate flips to a Democratic majority,” he said. “I will continue to work for issues important to us in the state.”
He said the state has important races coming up over the next few years he would like to be involved in, but as for running again, he’s not saying.
“I have not made any decisions about running again for public office, it’s just too soon,” he said.
Andrea Bond-Johnson was shocked when she lost a second time to Republican Chris Hurt in the race for State House District 82 in northwestern Tennessee.
“We thought we had it,” she said. “The numbers looked great, we had a lot of support, but on Election Day it didn’t matter. We lost.”
Bond-Johnson did a little better than she did in 2018 when she lost to Hurt by a vote of 7,229 to 9,680. This year, she pulled in 8,684 votes, but lost to Hurt’s 12,482, meaning she fared worse by percentage than her first run.
“We are still analyzing what happened, who did and didn’t vote,” she said. “It looks like a lot of Democrats just failed to go out and vote.”
She said election night was difficult. Despite their optimism, she and her supporters realized they lost early in the evening.
“When the results came in from Lauderdale County and went to Chris, we knew there was no coming back,” she said. “The rest of the night went the same way.”
She said she was prepared for defeat, having lost two years ago.
“I had my guard up,” she said. “Overall, the experience was wonderful. Our team was magnificent, our campaign manager was great. And I am still inspired to serve. I want to help the people of the district and plan to serve in another capacity.”
She said she got over the loss quickly and was back behind her desk at her insurance agency the next day.
As a Black woman in a district that has never elected anyone of color, regardless of gender, she said she knew she would have a tough time in the race. She was surprised at how hard it would be, even from within her own party.
“It was not a matter of policy,” she said. “I ran on the same issues as Democrats around the state. Out here, my opponent was pro-life, pro-guns and pro-Trump, I ran on issues like health care, education and the need for broadband for the Internet. But early on I saw another problem: my race.
“I reached out to a former chair of the Democratic party,” she said. “He was in another county. I asked for his support and he said he had not made up his mind about me yet. I asked what he meant — I was a democrat running on the same issues as the other Democrats. He said he was not happy with ‘the direction the party was going, because it was not inclusive enough.’ That was code for saying there were too many people of color running.”
She said the new chair of that county’s party, a Black woman, gave her support, but she was unhappy with the lack of support from others in the party.
Would she be willing to run a third time?
“Probably not,” she said. “I’m not afraid to run, but I think my race and gender played an important part in my loss. I’m not sure this district is ready for someone who looks like me. We have to be realistic.”
I reached out to a former chair of the Democratic Party. I asked for his support and he said he had not made up his mind about me yet . . . He said he was not happy with 'the direction the party was going, because it was not inclusive enough.' That was code for saying there were too many people of color running.
– Andrea Bond Johnson
Like every other candidate, Bond-Johnson was hampered in her campaign by the COVID-19 crisis.
“I could not go out and address civic groups and talk about the real issues confronting us,” she said. “This is a rural area, lots of farmers, and we were forced to try to reach them by phone. Ironically, the lack of broadband in our state and region – which was a key part of our campaign – really hurt us. Since so few are connected, we were unable to use the internet to reach them.”
She said she has enough in her life to keep busy. She is the CEO of the Golden Circle Insurance Agency in Brownsville and a funeral director as part of her family’s Rawls Funeral System.
She said she still plans on staying involved in politics to get what her district needs.
“I still want to help,” she said. “We plan more voter engagement, hopefully have events starting in the spring and summer to see what the people of our district want. We will listen to them and put our resources together and help them.”
She said she also plans to talk to Republican elected officials.
“I am very comfortable calling our representatives and senators,” she said. “I met with Chris Hurt years ago and would be happy to do so again and see what I can do to help.”
A first time candidate, Jane George ran for the Tennessee Senate 6th District against incumbent Becky Duncan Massey, a member of a prominent political family.
In a pattern common in Tennessee politics, George lost with 35.7 percent of the vote to Massey’s 63.1 percent (35,785 to Massey’s 61,286). She said she will never forget election night.
“It was a small gathering at my house, because of COVID, just a few members of my staff,” she said. “We were thrilled when the first results from mail-in ballots came in, I was winning. Then the regular results poured in, we were just pulled down.”
She said she ran a hard campaign and was confident that she had a fighting chance, noting she was told by Republicans that they voted for her. Now, she regrets that her defeat meant the voices of so many people that voted for her will not be heard.
Massey, a state senator since 2011, ran with the full support of the Republican party and the advantage of the political pedigree of her family. Massey’s father, the late John J. Duncan Sr., was mayor of Knoxville from 1959 to 1964 and a U.S. congressman from 1964 to 1968. Her brother, John J. Duncan Jr., was a U.S. congressman from 1988 through 2018.
“I was running against an incumbent candidate, her daddy and her brother, 60 years of politicians,” George said. “And I didn’t have the support of my own state party. I did not come up through the Democratic party, I was an outsider. The state party did not give us a cent. The county party did give us a lot of volunteers who helped us campaign, but the state picks and chooses only the candidates they think have the best chance to win.”
That’s why George has already decided on her next move: she is running to be the new chairman of the state’s Democratic party. She is one of 10 candidates running for the seat vacated by the retiring Mary Mancini. The selection will be made in early January by a party committee.
“We have to do a strong and tangible evaluation of the last election cycle and examine our priorities,” she said. “Of the state senate races ours was one of four that fared well, and that was without state party support. We need to figure out what we can do to support the candidates, what tools can we give them. I know the Republican party spends five or six times what we do.”
She said the Democratic Senate Caucus was very supportive of her run and very helpful, keeping her in the loop about what was happening in the state senate.
George, of Knoxville, has a doctorate in chiropractic medicine. She is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and attended the University of Tennessee.
George laments the condition of her state and felt that she was the candidate ready to take them on.
“There are so many issues at stake on the state level that need to be reevaluated,” she said. “I campaigned on how the state operates in basic things like health care, education, women’s choices, LBGTQ rights. Our state has the cheapest labor with the fewest safeguards for workers.”
She said she is also considering other options for public office, anything from local office on up. She said she has not ruled out anything, but wants to take her time and make an informed decision.
All three candidates said the election gave them a new awareness of the issues confronting Democrats and believed the party needs to make changes if it plans to compete with the entrenched Republican machine.
Republicans Chris Hurt, Mark Green and Becky Massey did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
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