Finding a gleam of hope in the loss of election deniers

The red wave that wasn’t

November 16, 2022 6:02 am
Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 7, 2020: "Stop the Steal" event. (Photo: Alex Kent)

Nashville, Tenn., Nov. 7, 2020: “Stop the Steal” event. (Photo: Alex Kent)

In 2016, many rank and file Democrats believed Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. One eternally optimistic family member of mine predicted an “epic blowout.” Trump, he said, would lose by a historic margin. 

But I found myself talking to a General Motors employee and member of the United Auto Workers union one day. 

“I just can’t vote for her,” the man said of Clinton. “She IS for the working man and woman, but (Trump’s) right: She ought to be in prison.” 

There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for UAW workers, or members of most labor unions, to openly speak of voting for a Republican candidate. But the man’s comments reflected what was becoming clear: Trump held great appeal for a large number of Americans, including working and middle class voters. 

Since then, Trump took office as president and started down a path of actions that were, to use a word that has been worn out, unprecedented. His presidency culminated with the Jan. 6, 2022 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, months after he began floating the idea that the only way he would lose was if the election was “stolen.” Never mind that now-President Joe Biden won the popular vote with 7 million more votes; Trump convinced thousands of Americans to mistrust the electoral system and others to threaten Congress as the body worked to certify the 2020 election. 

Rather than tamping down the claims of stolen elections, the insurrection furthered them. Republican politicians at all levels and in most states rose to the bait. Former Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit filed by Texas AG Ken Paxton to delay presidential electors from casting votes in four battleground states — an effort by Trump to hang on to the presidency. 

Over the last two years, Tennessee politicians, including Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Rep.-elect Andy Ogles have sought — and gained — Trump’s support. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has promoted Trump, posting tweets like one in February 2021 about the “failure” of Democratic policies and “Trump derangement syndrome.” 

But the worm has turned. 

With a few exceptions, Trump-backed candidates performed poorly in the 2022 midterm elections. In Pennsylvania, U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz lost as did election denier and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly beat Blake Masters, for whom a Trump PAC ran ads. Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt who, as our colleagues at the Nevada Current write, is the face of the Big Lie in his state, lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. 

Despite historical trends and predictions, Democrats did not lose the midterms bigly and there was no red wave. One of the few states in which Republican candidates won overwhelmingly was Florida, and that doesn’t bode well for Trump, since his erstwhile friend and now likely competition for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Gov. Ron DeSantis, reigns supreme. 

Tennessee, of course, was one of the other states Republicans held with ease. 

In the last week, Tennessee Democrats have bemoaned the electoral state of affairs in Tennessee. To the uninitiated or frankly, the naive, that’s fair if one looks at losses in the governor’s race as well as the campaigns for U.S. House District 5 and 7. For the savvy, none of those losses were unexpected. 

The expected red wave failed to materialize, as election deniers nationwide went down in flames. Even in Tennessee, where a supermajority holds a lock on the legislature and voter turnout is low, there are gleams of hope as conservative lawmakers jump the Trump ship, retiring Republicans speak out and a champion for constituents retains a redistricted seat.

Dr. Jason B. Martin, Democratic gubernatorial nominee, and Odessa Kelly, Democratic nominee for U.S. House District 7, were both running against incumbents — and it’s the rare challenger who can expect to win against an entrenched elected official. Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell fared well in Davidson County but, as was intended through the GOP-led redistricting process, lost the rest of the new 5th Congressional District to Ogles. 

I’m no pollyanna idealist and may even tend toward the cynical, but there are signs that slight change is afoot in parts of Tennessee. Legislative Republicans redrew state House districts so Rep. Gloria Johnson, a perpetual thorn in the collective side of state Republicans, would be forced to run in a new district. Johnson, a formidable fighter for public education, womens’ issues, healthcare and anyone who happens to be a constituent, won — by the largest margin of her six races, several of which she’s won (and lost) by mere handfuls of votes. 

Conservative lawmaker Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, wasted no time jumping from the Trump ship after the ex-president’s poor showing last week. The day after the election, Zachary tweeted:I’m thankful for what President Trump did for this country during his Presidency. However, 2 years of the below is not the path forward for victory in 2024. The GOP does need a bold, decisive, proven, unifying conservative leader. That man is now @GovRonDesantis.” Desantis may be no improvement over Trump, but he’s not Trump.

Retiring Knoxville GOP Rep. Eddie Mannis. Photographed by John Partipilo at the Tennessee General Assembly in 2022.
Retiring Knoxville GOP Rep. Eddie Mannis. Photographed by John Partipilo at the Tennessee General Assembly in 2022.

And outgoing GOP Rep. Eddie Mannis, described by people from both parties as a good and decent man, created a post on his Facebook page that caused a stir. 

Mannis, who was elected in 2020, recounts how he was recruited by the Tennessee Republican Party and how he told them at the time he had not voted for Trump. 

He went on to describe how “leadership” of the  Knox County Republican Party “did everything they could to destroy me.” Mannis, who is gay, said he felt part of the attack was due to his sexual orientation. But he also writes of running for office on his experience — Mannis has operated small businesses in Knoxville for years, as well as founding HonorAir Knoxville, a program that flies veterans free of charge to Washington, DC, to view memorials.

In his post, he spoke out about the legislative bill to remove “obscene” books from school libraries, and called it “political rhetoric” — which it is.

America’s democracy isn’t safe yet: Trump’s Tuesday announcement of his 2024 presidential campaign sets the stage for another round of discord and drama but that election deniers largely lost their 2022 elections is a triumph. 

And in Tennessee,  we have much — much — work to do here to engage Tennesseans civically and hold our lawmakers accountable for some of the harmful laws they pass. But it’s hard to live with negativity all the time, and so we must look for gleams of hope that there are politicians working to do right by their constituents, which we find in Johnson and Mannis, and even those seeing the error of their Trump ways, like Zachary.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.