It used to be said that the Tennessee electorate consisted of one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans, and one-third independents. If that is still true, the independents have been spending a lot of time in the Republican camp of late.
The question for Democrats these days is whether they can get them back.
Will the Democrats regain their old coalition of urban blacks and liberals combined with rural and small-town Democrats, primarily in West Tennessee?
Given the pounding Democrats have taken in the past two elections, can Tennessee ever return to a two-party state? Political parties sometimes reach a tipping point, as in the Deep South, where one-party Democratic control has shifted to deep red.
State Democrats are reeling from a Perfect Storm that shattered the establishment that has governed the state for decades. Prominent Democratic officeholders who held their seats by virtue of incumbency and long service got old and retired. The possibility of their being replaced by younger Democrats was extinguished by the national success of Barack Obama.
While other Southern states got redder and redder, control of the state Legislature in Tennessee remained in Democratic hands due to a coalition of urban blacks and rural West Tennessee whites. Congressional districts remained in Democratic hands by virtue of longtime incumbents like John Tanner and Bart Gordon, both now retired.
Rural West Tennessee Democrats started to move toward the Republicans when Congressman Harold Ford Jr. was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate against Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. Then along came Obama to complete the process.
Democrats have had success statewide with right-of-center candidates like Ned McWherter and Phil Bredesen. Where is that sort of Democrat for the future?
Will Obama Democrats get excited if some right of center Democrat comes along and tries to revive the old coalition? Can it be revived?
The election of a new party chairman early next year might give some indication of where the Democratic Party will go. Will control of the party machinery be retained by Obama Democrats or will the leadership go to someone more in tune with big donors and traditional Democratic leaders—people like Bredesen or former chair Doug Horne?
Can any potential statewide candidate gather the support of urban Democrats and also win in the small towns and rural areas of the state? There are not enough minorities and liberals in Tennessee to win a statewide election.
Here in Knox County we have had Democrats elected to countywide office: County Executive Tommy Schumpert, District Attorney Randy Nichols, and County Clerk Mike Padgett to name three. They won with the support of Republicans and none of the three would be considered stalwarts of the county party. Is there any prospect of a Democrat locally that could unite Knoxville Democrats and suburban Republicans to win countywide?
Much has been made about whether the Republican Party has abandoned the Big Tent and is writing off minority voters and threatening its future. I would submit that it is just as big an issue for Democrats in Tennessee.
Will Democrats support a statewide candidate who is Pro-Life, against Gay Marriage, and a big Second Amendment supporter? Are there litmus tests?
There is something to be said for supporting the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, in Howard Dean's memorable phrase. Why vote for Democrats who are just fake Republicans? The question often arises among Republicans when conservatives denigrate "RINO" candidates.
It's the difference in being all about parties or all about ideologies. Is it important to you to have the votes to elect the House and Senate speakers, even if it takes "impure" candidates?
If you are looking for a winning U.S. Senate candidate against Lamar Alexander do you beg Bredesen or Congressman Jim Cooper to take it? Or do you recruit Ashley Judd?
It's a tipping point.