Given the thumping they’ve received in recent elections, you would think Tennessee Democrats would be united, developing a consistent message and plotting a comeback. You would be wrong. They are Democrats, after all.
They are currently engaged in a grudge match for control of the state party.
Much has been made of the Tea Party splitting the Republican Party. Conservatives are accused of, and most will concede, that they don’t mind risking losing elections in order to elect candidates with conservative credentials instead of the hated RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).
But the split among Republicans is usually about the degree of commitment and priorities. Even most mainstream Republicans still pay lip service to balanced budgets, cutting taxes, and profess to be pro-life.
The split among Tennessee Democrats is much wider and deeper. The most politically active Democrats often see supporting gay marriage and being pro-choice as litmus tests for Democratic candidates. They are like the Tea Party in that they argue they need to elect “real Democrats” as opposed to “Republican Lite.”
As a libertarian conservative, I am in sympathy with the Tea Party and the progressive Democrats in that if you have deeply held political beliefs you hold them to be more important than just electing members of your party. These two groups, however, are the bane of party leaders who want to win elections and use party majorities to seize power. And it’s the duty of party leadership to elect party nominees.
There is currently a war going on over control of the Democratic State Executive Committee. A group of insurgents has already tried to oust the party chair, former state Sen. Roy Herron. Herron is pro-life and is considered too conservative by many Democrats. So former chair Chip Forrester is recruiting candidates to win more seats on the executive committee and oust Herron and install a new chair more in line with progressive thinking.
Locally, former Democratic state Sen. Bill Owen, who serves on the state executive committee and on the Democratic National Committee, is being challenged by former Knox County Commissioner Mark Harmon. When the coup was attempted to remove Herron, Owen sided with Herron. He is part of current majority of the committee that argues the Democrats lost three of five Congressional seats, seven of 14 state Senate seats, and 21 of 49 House seats during Forrester’s tenure.
Forrester supports Harmon.
Forrester denies he is seeking to return as chair, but if his slate wins control he will be able to influence who does get the job—and it won’t be Herron. The number of seats lost during his tenure was a debacle for state Democrats. I think it can be argued that having President Obama at the top of the ticket and the retirement of long-serving Democratic incumbents also played a role. But regardless, Democratic voters will decide by their votes whether to retain Herron or support Forrester’s slate.
Herron will be chair during this election cycle and he faces a daunting task. The Democrats can’t find anybody to run against Gov. Bill Haslam. More longtime incumbent Democrats are retiring from the state Senate in districts that have been trending Republican. Given their depleted ranks they probably would be better off not fighting among themselves.
It will be good for the Republicans to have the Democrats fighting over who’s on their executive committee while the Republicans are winning elections for public offices.
Full disclosure: Owen and I are two of four co-hosts (two Republicans, two Democrats) of a talk show on Mondays at 1 p.m. on WJBE AM 1040/FM 99.7 called the Bill&Bill&Frank&Frank Show, or what a Metro Pulse feature on the station called a “yakfest.” Despite his misguided devotion to the Democratic Party, Owen and I have been friends for a long time. I don’t have a dog in the fight except to hope Forrester is successful in splitting the party and enabling the Democrats to lose even more seats.