Last night’s election shows the Democratic Party has largely lost its way in terms of representing the values of the majority of Tennessee voters. Yet Republicans better not take it for granted, or they might find the roles reversed a few years from now.
Well, it’s hard to know how much was just state Democrats being in the wrong election at the wrong time and how much was simply a repudiation of the Democratic Party in Tennessee, but the result is that the state Democratic Party will spend the next two years picking up what pieces remain. A close look at what happened shows just how much things have changed since the mid-1990’s.
When I was first elected to the state Senate in 1994, the Democrats controlled the Senate by an 18 to 15 majority, and in the state House it was more like 60 to 40. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to how many Republicans were in the House when I was elected because they were largely irrelevant. And, if they were honest, many House Republicans would have said (and some did say) the same thing. Today, the Republicans have a 20 to 13 majority in the Senate, two seats superior to what the Democrats had in 1994. And in the House, Republicans have a whopping 64 to 34 majority. (Kent Williams, formerly a Republican and now an Independent in every sense of the word, was re-elected.) But a closer look at what happened in the House shows just how bad the defeat last night was for Democrats. And I don’t say that in a partisan way; the numbers just bear it out.
Last night the state House Democrats had 12 incumbents defeated. And of those, only two had served just one term. In other words, a lot of multiple-term incumbent Democrats were sent home. And they were not “nobody” Democrats. Mark Maddox (D-Dresden) was in the House Democratic Caucus leadership. Les Winningham (D-Huntsville) had served as Chairman of the House Education Committee until the Republicans took control just two years ago. Kent Coleman (D-Murfreesboro) was the reigning Chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
Further evidence of the devastation from last night is that the Democrats held two seats that were open because the incumbents retired. And they lost both of them. The Republicans, on the other hand, had seven seats at play where the incumbent Republican was not running in the general election. And while most of them really were solid Republican districts, Democrats didn’t come close to winning any of them. Not even close. And the Democrats didn’t really come close to beating any incumbent Republicans.
Are Rural Democrats a Thing of the Past?
But let’s look a little closer still. There were 31 incumbent Democrats running in contested elections, and 12 of them lost. In other words, more than a third of them lost. But that doesn’t tell the whole story either. Five of those 31 incumbents were in minority districts that are heavily Democratic. So, Democrats lost almost exactly half of the non-minority district races (26) in which they were the incumbent. But there’s something even more telling still. Of the 19 Democratic incumbents who won, only seven reside outside a minority district or one of the four urban counties comprising Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville. In other words, rural Democrats are becoming more and more extinct which is in keeping with the national trend that finds most Democrats coming from minority and urban districts. This is a huge change because rural Democrats have forever controlled not only the Democratic Party, but Tennessee. Not anymore. Over 40 percent of the House Democratic Caucus is composed of members of the Black Caucus.
So the question is, are there any common threads that may explain the extreme loss? Was it all just backlash against the Democratic Party’s big-spending, high-taxing, socially liberal agenda in Washington? Maybe so, but I find it interesting that except for two of the 12 incumbent Democrats who lost, all the rest either did not vote for or, worse yet, had played “footsies” with Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 127, the resolution that would effectively reverse our state Supreme Court’s decision that made Tennessee’s Constitution the most pro-abortion in the nation. By “footsies” I mean they would vote for hostile amendments intended to undercut the resolution or procedural efforts to undermine it, but once those efforts were defeated, they would vote for the resolution. Sort of the “I voted against it before I voted for it” kind of thing.
Did Pretending to Be ‘Pro-Life’ Carry a Price?
Interestingly, that common theme carries over into the races in which incumbent Democrats won. Looking at the seven rural Democrats who won, the two who won by the smallest margins, former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) and House Finance Chairman Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), are the least pro-life of the group. In fact, Rep. Naifeh is one of the more extreme pro-abortion House members who singlehandedly, by virtue of his committee appointments over the years, killed SJR 127 for over seven years. However, the only two of the seven who have consistently voted pro-life every time, John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) and Eddie Bass (D-Prospect), had the highest and third highest margins of victory.
I’m not saying, however, that being pro-life was the sole determinative issue last night in the devastating losses suffered by incumbent Democratic state legislators. There was surely some backlash against the Democratic agenda in Washington, and there were no races higher up the ticket that carried any Democratic “coattails.” But it seems to me that people who are pro-life and show it by “walking the walk,” not just “talking the talk,” tend to have an internal worldview that gives them a perspective which carries over into all aspects of their political thinking, including the economy, the role of government, and the health and welfare of society. And those who aren’t pro-life are similarly influenced by their view of life itself in their dealings with these other issues. You have to wonder if the result is that those elected officials in this second, more pro-abortion category often end up officially making decisions concerning our well-being that do not resound with a majority of us.
So, the numbers from last night show the Democratic Party lost numbers. But a closer look behind those numbers shows that the Democratic Party has largely lost its way in terms of representing the values of the majority of Tennessee voters. Yet Republicans better not take it for granted or let their newfound power go to their collective head. If they lose their way and retreat from their values, too, then they might find the roles reversed a few years from now. It’s up to us to hold them accountable. And we’ll do our best to help you do just that.