More on the Tennessee Democrats

Steven Hale has pretty much the definitive story on the fall of the Democrats. The only piece that seems to be missing to me is the roll of the Rosalind Kurita episode. Maybe it doesn’t, but it seemed to me at the time–and still does–as a crucial pivot point that really read differently to the Democratic Party than it did to voters who traditionally voted Democratic.

I think the Party thought it was playing hardball with someone they perceived of as disloyal.

I think a lot of voters felt that this was a clear demonstration that the Party was so corrupt and so good-old-boy-ish that it would demolish anyone who put the good of the state over the good of the party.

It’s possible that the Kurita incident would have blown up in Democrats’ faces no matter what the Party did. But what it did do sent a couple of messages the Democrats still don’t want to take responsibility for sending. One is the primacy of party interests over state interests–though it sounds from Hale’s article like they may finally get this. The other is the message it sent to women about how the Democratic party treats female candidates. If you know you live in a state where the baseline–across parties–is not very woman-friendly and one party at least puts women in leadership positions, why would you leave your loyalty with the other party?

I mean, I know why I do. But why would a regular Tennessee woman?

Until the TNDP has some good answers to that question, all they can do is wait for the Republicans to fuck up so bad (while hoping their own Democrats don’t go down with them) that women will come back to them in disgust.

I would, if that is the strategy, invite all skeletons in any prominent closets to be dealt with now. Because voters whose motivation is disgust can be easily motivated to leave you for the same reason.

3 thoughts on “More on the Tennessee Democrats

  1. Aunt B.,

    Let me take off my partisan hat and see if I can provide some perspective on the decline of the Democratic Party in Tennessee.

    First, it is not true that Tennessee is more conservative than in, say, 1970 when Winfield Dunn became the first Republican Governor since Reconstruction. What has changed is the nature of Conservatives in Tennessee.

    Look at the places where Republicans have made their greatest gains in the last 20 to 30 years and you will observe that these areas are also the counties with the highest percentage of population growth. ‘New people’ as in people who relocate to Tennessee have gone overwhelmingly Republican. Just look at the traditionally Democratic counties around Nashville. Thirty years ago there were only a couple of Republican state legislators. Now there are almost no Democrats.

    Part of this has to do with quality of life issues. Schools in Williamson and Rutherford counties are good. Government is capable and hardly anti-change. All those people who come here with a vision of the South based on movies like ‘The Help’ and all the other ‘Thank God you are not a Southerner’ films back to ‘In the Heat of the Night’ are shocked to find that they are not exiled to Mississippi circa 1963.

    One excellent example of this point is all those UAW workers who moved to Williamson and Maury counties to staff Saturn. I remember the fear among some Republicans that this would mean both counties would become solidly Democratic. But, mirable dictu, the union families rejected the ‘good old boy’ Democratic power structure and voted for the more reform-minded Republicans.

    Second, the Democratic party became a gerontocracy that locked out fresh blood in its leadership, which came from the Leadership of the Legislature from whence all Democratic power flowed. Before 1971 there were maybe one or two Speakers of either House that spent more than four years in that role but they were the exception, not the rule. After 1971 Ned McWherter and Jimmy Naifeh both served longer than any House Speaker in TN history and John Wilder served longer as Speaker of the Senate than anyone in American political history.

    Your point about the Kurita race plays into this weakness. Regardless of the actual merits of the case against her, the public perception that the good old boys were hammering an outspoken woman. That the Republicans have elected two women to Congress and a women as Speaker does not help make the Democrats look good.

    Also in 1971, in response to Dunn’s victory, the Democrats started dismantling the powers of the Governor’s Office and placing them in the hands of the Speakers. The Wilder Plan for judicial ‘selection’ was just the most notable aspect of this effort to maintain power.

    The result was to create an ossified leadership that was not only resistant to change but produced a weak bench for higher offices. It also resulted in a massive imbalance between state sending on goodies for West TN vs the rest of the state. Neither did anything to assist the party’s growth in the rest of the state. And it certainly did nothing to attract the waves of new voters moving into the state.

    A good way to look at all this is to consider some interesting election results.

    Governor Bredesen is the only Democrat to win a statewide election since Sarah Kyle was elected to the PSC in 1994. He was so far out of favor with the Democratic Leadership that when he ran in 1994, leading Democrats with ties to the Legislative Leadership tacitly backed Sundquist. The only reason that the Democrats fell in line in 2002 was the lack of a viable alternative.

    Meanwhile the Republicans have elected a Governor from West TN, two Senators from Middle TN and two Senators and a Governor from East TN. In the Legislature, the Republicans are led by a Speaker from East TN and a Speaker from Middle TN. Is there any wonder why one party is dominant and the other almost reduced to a regional force?

    Finally, the Democrats became too reliant on financial support from lobbyists and corporations and alienated allowed other sources of fundraising to atrophy or alienated them by failing to take their interests into account. As long as the Democrats controlled the Legislature they could pressure contributions from almost any group. Once they lost the Senate, that began to change. Now they are left with only their ideological allies.

  2. The only thing I don’t buy about that is that they don’t have any ideological allies. They’ve alienated them, too. I mean, you only have to look to Harold Ford for an example of that. He’s the precurser to Mitt Romney in that way–Just tell me what you want me to be and I’ll be it.

  3. I think that the unions and the environmentalists and the trial lawyers don’t have any options in where to go.

    The reason that Ford got the nomination was that there was no viable alternative and his being the first state-wide black candidate was a demonstration of Democratic recognition of the importance of the black vote. If Bredesen had decided at the last minute to run or if Bill Pursell had decided to jump in, Ford would never have gotten the nomination.

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