That blunt acknowledgement of a reality so recently made clear by the November 2 election results was at the heart of the weekend’s central event, the selection of a party chairman for the next two years. Running again was the current chairman, Chip Forrester, who had two challengers — Memphian Matt Kuhn (the only non-Nashvillian in the race) and Wade Munday, the most youthful of the three and a former press spokesman for the party.
In a debate Monday night, held in Nashville and carried online, all three candidates had delivered versions of the same home truth as would McWherter — that the Tennessee Democratic Party, which had held undisputed sway for almost the entirely of the state’s organized political history, had been forced to accept a fate — minority-party status — which may have been coming for some time but which had become undeniable only in November.
The state’s retiring two-term governor, Phil Bredesen, was, after all, a Democrat, and, as recently as 2008 — the year, it will be remembered of President Obama’s runaway victory over the GOP’s John McCain — the Democrats had what seemed to be a comfortable, if somewhat diminished, edge over the Republicans in the state House of Representatives and nursed hopes of regaining control of the Senate, where they were only a vote or two away.
As it happened, the party’s hopes in the Senate slipped further away by another vote or two that year, and, in a genuine surprise, Democrats would lose control of the House by a single vote. Somewhat resourcefully, however, they convinced a dissident Republican, Kent Williams of Carter County in far-east Tennessee, to vote along with a remarkably unified Democratic caucus to make himself Speaker, rather than the expectant Republican, Jason Mumpower of Bristol.
The new Speaker was formally excommunicated from the GOP, and, though he called himself a “Carter County Republican,” he was a de facto independent, a fact which gave the House Democrats exact parity with the Republicans.
There would be no coups of that sort when the General Assembly reconvened on Tuesday. The newly elected governor, Bill Haslam, was a Republican; the state Senate continued to be in Republicans hands, by the margin of xx to xx; and, most shocking of all, there would be 64 Republicans in the new House as against only 34 Democrats.
These facts were grimly noted in remarks by surviving state Senator Lowe Finney of Jackson, caucus chair of the Senate Democrats, to the 66 voting members (a male and a female from each state Senate district) of the party’s state executive committee) who met in the House chamber Saturday to decide between the three candidates for chairman.
Though not exactly a Blue Dog (a conservative breed whose losses in November had brought it close to extinction), Finney was middle-of-the-road enough to have survived the electoral tsunami, and, in a speech that implicitly put him forth as a statewide party prospect for the next major election cycle, Finney argued strenuously that, henceforth, the party should support its candidates’ philosophical positions rather than vice versa.
That, more or less, was also the stance taken in the Monday night debate by Kuhn, the former Shelby County Democratic chairman and ex-county commissioner, who conspicuously conferred his imprimatur on “pro-business” candidates and by Munday, whose rhetoric was pitched more to bloggers and those who considered themselves progressives. Forrester’s position had been somewhat more nuanced, emphasizing a tighter integration between the party’s infrastructure, its developed messaging, and Democratic standard-bearers at election time.
Underneath the ideological differences, such as they were, more personal considerations played a role. Kuhn had stout support from his former boss, just retired 8th District congressman John Tanner, and, less remotely, Knoxville publisher/entrepreneur Doug Horne, a former state party chairman himself. Both had been affiliated in the state chairmanship contest of 2009 with a party faction, backed by outgoing governor Phil Bredesen and by four of the state’s then-serving five Democratic congressmen, who had rebelled at Forrester’s candidacy and backed Nashville lawyer Charles Robert Bone.
When Forrester won anyhow, thanks largely to serious early-on grass-roots organizing and to the help of party veterans like David Upton of Memphis, Horne would be one of the first to call a truce and offer his help to Forrester, who otherwise was forced to pursue his agenda of party-building while swimming against the establishment tide.
Since then, however, relations had seriously cooled between Horne, who years ago had donated a downtown Nashville building as party headquarters and continued to collect monthly rent for it, and Forrester, who has publicly called for the party to purchase its own building. (It was difficult to tell what was chicken and what was egg in the dispute between Horne and Forrester.)
In his remarks, Finney would anger some of the Forrester supporters by pointedly including a broad suggestion that the party leadership needed changing, and when he cast his own vote, it would be for Kuhn, who picked up several of the votes that had gone for Bone in 2009 and had support as well from West Tennessee and from Shelby County, though he would end up halving his home county’s votes with Forrester.
The final tally was: Forrester-38; Kuhn-17; Munday-10 — a distribution which somewhat reflected the spread between Forrester and opponent Bone two years ago. Whatever else the outcome signified, it demonstrated that Forrester, who had raised considerable money for the party during his first term and done a fair amount of circuit-riding, was not being blamed for the Democratic wipe-out in a year of Republican electoral landslide.
And Forrester’s victory apparently demonstrated a continuing disparity between the will of the party’s rank-and-file and that of its erstwhile luminaries. Of the major Democratic office-holders who resisted Forrester in 2009, only 5th District congressman Jim Cooper of Nashville, who had been lukewarm at best in his commitment to that coalition, was even destined to remain in office. Tanner and the 6th District’s Bart Gordon had read the political tea leaves and retired, while Lincoln Davis was defeated for reelection in the 4th District. All were succeeded by Republicans. (Steve Cohen of Memphis’ 9th District, who was handily re-elected, had stayed neutral in the brouhaha.)
Bredesen, of course, had reached the end of his constitutionally allotted two terms and will be succeeded on Saturday by Republican governor-elect Haslam. For the record, the outgoing governor had mellowed in his attitude toward Forrester and had pointedly absolved him of responsibility for the 2010 electoral debacle.
For their part, Forrester’s supporters were directing such resentment as they maintained at key staffers for the governor and the then-serving Democratic congressmen. Upton told reporters after the vote that such figures as Will Pinkston of Bredesen’s staff and Beecher Frasier, a top aide to Lincoln Davis, had been the major culprits, largely for reasons of guarding their turf, and should have been fired for their efforts.
Nor were supporters of the losers on Saturday necessarily placated, despite Forrester’s call for unity and his summons to “these fine young men” (Kuhn, Munday, and dropout candidate Justin Walley) to stand with him in the well of the House chamber after the vote.
“It is what it is,” said Munday supporter Joan Cheek of Nashville, and her husband Will Cheek, a former state party chairman, was talking out loud about creating a 527 organization, named for a section of the IRS code that permits politically oriented fundraising organizations to operate with de facto tax breaks. Cheek may have been envisioning a 527 as a vehicle for circumventing a Forrester-dominated party apparatus, or he may, as he said, have merely seen such an organization as an effective auxiliary way to widen Democratic support.
“Let it happen. We heard they wanted to do that two years ago, and we wish they had,” commented Upton.
In any case, Forrester was once again a winner, whatever that might portend for the Democratic future, or for his own, at age 56. “I’m a tough old guy,” he said at a victory celebration at Puckett’s, a downtown Nashville pub, where he talked about proposing a party bylaw imposing a four-year term limit on future party chairmen.
One of the attendees at Forrester’s victory party was former Nashville city councilman and veteran lobbyist John Summers, who mused out loud that what Democrats had to do in the future was imitate Republicans by developing a strong central thesis and requiring the party’s candidates to hold to it. “That’s how they got to where they are today. Not personality but message. Democrats should do the same,” he said.
That was virtually the opposite of what Lowe Finney’s advice had been, but it resonated somewhat with what Forrester had said in last week’s debate. In any case, it was once again his call to make.