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VOL. 42 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 23, 2018

Democrats need viable candidates to catch blue wave

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Republicans called it the “kickoff” to what they hope will be a great election season. Democrats are downplaying a lopsided loss in the 14th Senate District special election, saying it won’t represent results later this year in President Donald Trump’s midterm.

Either way, throw in a helping of atheism and a dash of gay marriage, and you get a resounding Bible Belt win for the GOP and a butt-whipping for Democrats – 72 to 28 percent – so bad it throws a speed bump in the party’s improving fortunes.

It could be a coincidence, but Jason Freeman was replaced as executive director of the state party this week and replaced by Jeff Teague, who most recently served as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. Several party organizers also were ousted.

Gayle Jordan sounded like a solid Democratic candidate during the campaign backing, among other things, Medicaid expansion and rural broadband – two items our Republican governor has pushed, as well.

But when it came to her bio, she hit a wall, most notably as executive director of a group called Recovering from Religion, which provides support for people who lose faith in God and religion. In other words, she’s no fair-weather atheist.

Her opponent, Murfreesboro pharmacist Shane Reeves, played on their obvious differences. He’s a deacon at North Boulevard Church of Christ, the most politically powerful church in Rutherford County, and he harped on their different world views, noting all of his decisions will be based on faith, family and a conservative business acumen.

But even in this red district, which takes in eastern Rutherford, Bedford, Marshall, Moore and Lincoln counties, Republicans got a little nervous during early voting for the March 13 election and started hitting right where it hurts – in the heart and the pocket.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Jordan the “most dangerous candidate” he’s seen in 40 years of politics, not because she’s an atheist but because she tries to help people get over religion. Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden pounced as well, trying to use Jordan to attack Democratic gubernatorial candidates Karl Dean and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh.

The party sent out mailers with quotes from Jordan saying stuff like “God is such a bad God. The sacrifice of Jesus is such a bad concept,” etc., in addition to one showing Jordan officiating a marriage between two men. The men featured in the ad have since threatened to file a lawsuit against Republicans for violating their privacy.

As if having God on their side weren’t enough, Republicans poured more than $600,000 into the race, with Reeves spending $255,000 in self-endorsed loans, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

That doesn’t even include what they spent in the last week. (Reeves and a business partner made $66 million by selling the Reeves-Sain Drugstore business to Fred’s a couple of years ago, so he had a little money to play with.)

Jordan, meanwhile, raised only $42,700 and didn’t lend her campaign any money. She ran against now-former Sen. Jim Tracy in 2016, and Democrats felt she was ready to make a bigger impact against Reeves after Tracy vacated the seat and paved the way for the special election.

Republicans were a little shaky going into the race after Mark Pody, a sitting Republican House member from Lebanon, barely beat Democrat Mary Alice Carfi in the December 2017 special election to fill the state Senate seat formerly held by Mae Beavers. Pody won by only 300 votes against the political novice.

The Pody-Carfi result was a “wakeup call” for Republicans, says Middle Tennessee State University political scientist Kent Syler, “and they did not take anything for granted.” Besides spending a massive amount of money, they called in Lt. Gov. McNally and U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais and Marsha Blackburn, a U.S. Senate candidate, to campaign for Reeves on the final weekend, three days before the vote.

“It was already a tough district, and coupled with the fact she was an atheist, she didn’t have a prayer,” Syler says.

The voting results show the trend. Jordan was down by 20 percent after early votes were counted in Rutherford County, but wound up losing by a 44 percent margin by the time it was done.

Rutherford County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Ferry says he heard Jordan was ahead during the first part of early voting, causing Republicans to “sound the alarm.” They sent out five mailers in the last week alone, all of them attacking Jordan on religion and gay marriage, none of them discussing Jordan’s or Reeves’ policies, he notes.

“They definitely freaked out about it, and we’re surprised at how much money they spent on a special election,” says Ferry, adding he’ll be interested to see how much Republicans spent when all the reports are tallied.

Standing by Jordan

Predictably, McNally sent out a statement the night of Reeves’ election saying his conservative message “resonated” with District 14 voters.

“The Tennessee Democratic Party has now marshaled its statewide resources in two Senate special elections. They have come up empty twice. These results prove that any blue wave will hit a big, red seawall in Tennessee,” McNally’s statement says.

The Republican majority’s work on tax reduction, low debt and jobs will continue to be a winning recipe in November, McNally says.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Mary Mancini, on the other hand, took a moral victory from the outcome, saying Tennessee Republicans spent more than half a million dollars to maintain a Senate seat they won by 48 points in 2016.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint – we’re proud of Gayle Jordan, her campaign, and all the wonderful volunteers who worked tirelessly making phone calls, knocking on doors, and writing post cards to support Gayle. We’re also inspired by a candidate who persevered even though she endured relentless, ugly, personal attacks from a Republican candidate who had no interest in discussing his stance on the issues that matter to Tennessee families.”

Supporters roared their approval for Jordan when she spoke at MayDay Brewery in Murfreesboro the night of the election loss. Apparently, there’s no crying in baseball or politics?

Ferry says the party “knew the risk” when the race started and was caught off guard to some degree because Jordan didn’t face the same type of criticism in 2016. This time, Republicans left no stone unturned and came after her, forcing Jordan to defend her First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Still, Ferry explains there are “no regrets,” and he argues she would make a “great” state senator.

“It was unfortunate what happened and … I think more people are upset with the Republicans than anything else, how they use religion. It’s terrible. They claim they’re all about religious freedom, but that’s only one religion, and it’s theirs, it’s their brand of Christianity,” Ferry says.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, echoes those sentiments – to a point.

“In a seat that by any measure they should have comfortably won without spending a cent, they dumped money and had an all-call with Congress members and a majority of the Senate caucus both contributing funds and being on the ground to basically do a little bit worse than they did last time,” the Nashville senator explains.

“I think what it showed is if we’d had a well-funded candidate who was aggressively connecting with people in that district I think you would have seen a different outcome. And if they’ve got to go to those kind of lengths to hold pat, I think they’re gonna have a hard year.”

So do Democrats need to find a God-loving candidate to carry them to the Holy Land?

Yarbro admits Jordan’s position as an outspoken atheist in the 14th District was a problem. He also acknowledges the party “absolutely” needs the “right kind of candidates to take advantage of the political environment,” and he contends the party will put them out there this year.

“I certainly think that her inability to defend her record on that ground in a way that was persuasive to the people in that district unquestionably hurt,” he says.

The Tennessee Democratic Party didn’t exactly come running to her aid with money, either, Yarbro says.

State Rep. Mike Stewart, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, says political observers aren’t attaching much significance to the Jordan-Reeves race.

Instead, he prefers to point to the Pennsylvania race where Democrat Conor Lamb, a former Marine, won a special election to secure a U.S. House seat over Republican Rick Saccone in a strong Trump district. Stewart, a Nashville Democrat, says that’s more consistent with national trends.

“So I think what we’re going to see in Tennessee is what’s happening all across the country, which is Democratic voters that are energized and Republican voters that are not,” Stewart adds.

Asked whether he felt Jordan’s stance on religion was the ultimate killer for her, Stewart notes he “was not directly involved in that, so I think clearly that race was unrepresentative of what’s happening across the country.”

Where from here?

Democrats got great news last fall in special elections nationwide, but the Jordan-Reeves result is “very bad news at a very bad time, because this is recruiting time for candidates,” points out Syler, ex-chief of staff for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

Though it be “an anomaly” because of the religious differences between the candidates, the timing is problematic because of the difficulty in persuading people to put their names on the ballot. To Jordan’s credit, she was willing to run – twice – which should not be overlooked.

This time, however, her race was “on the radar,” Syler adds, and Republicans unleashed their political will and money.

Moving forward, the Tennessee Democratic Party is boasting moderates in former Gov. Phil Bredesen for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Bob Corker and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh for the governor’s seat this fall.

Considering Bredesen’s opponent, Blackburn, is stuck in the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial, he could win by picking up moderate Republicans and independents who liked the way he ran state government.

Blackburn comments at a Reeves rally: “If you want to make certain that you have got a state senator that understands the difference between evolution and creationism and is going to stand with you in those conservative Tennessee values, you want Shane Reeves.”

Whether Reeves, who graduated from pharmacy school and understands the basics of science and medicine, sanctioned those remarks is unknown. People say the darnedest things at political rallies, because even though she might have been trying to hammer on the religious difference between Reeves and Jordan, most people would say man has evolved over the centuries – at least physically, if not emotionally.

Of course, Republicans in this atmosphere don’t care what they have to say or how much they have to spend. All they want to do is win, and they’re doing quite a bit of it, holding supermajorities in the state House and Senate. All is fair in love and war (politics), right?

But here’s the biggest lesson from this whole shebang. A man might get drunk every night, cuss his kids and beat his wife. But if you ask him to go out and vote for an atheist, he won’t do it because he’s still hoping for redemption on his dying day.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.