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After Latest Statewide Losses, Can Democrats Be Competitive Again In Tennessee?

The decisive loss of Phil Bredesen suggests it may be a long time before Democrats can be competitive statewide.
Tony Gonzalez
The decisive loss of Phil Bredesen suggests it may be a long time before Democrats can be competitive statewide.

Hear the radio version of this story.

Democrats across the country were hoping this fall for a "blue wave" — substantial gains in the midterm elections, including winning the race for Senate in Tennessee.

But the decisive loss of former Gov. Phil Bredesen suggests it may be a long time before they can be competitive statewide.

“The blue wave didn’t hit Tennessee," says Brian Russell,  an assistant professor of American politics at Tennessee State University, "and it doesn’t look like there is any danger of a blue wave in Tennessee anytime soon either.”

As political observers and leaders assess the 2018 elections, one of the most important questions for Democrats is what it'll take to once again win statewide.

It matters not just for the candidates seeking top offices. Those farther down the ballot also benefit from strong nominees for governor and senator. They can help raise money, excite voters and get people to turn out for Election Day.

Bredesen was thought by many to be the Democrats best hope in 2018. He's the last Democrat to win statewide, having swept all 95 counties to win re-election in 2006, and he had a brand of conservatism that years ago would have won in Tennessee.

"If Bredesen can’t win statewide, I don’t know which Democrat can win statewide," Russell says. 

But Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, disagrees. He says the lack of a blue wave in Tennessee was not surprising, because Democrats first need to develop strong candidates for local races, so they can later win in statewide contests. 

“You have to realize that, for a decade, Democrats haven’t run very good candidates statewide," Oppenheimer said. "And that’s not a way you build your party.”

And around the country, Democrats did make gains. Oppenheimer notes that they took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

He adds that they're positioned to pick up seats in the U.S. Senate in 2020, when Republicans will have to defend more seats. Those include the one now held by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Tennessee Democratic Party chair Mary Mancini says the organization is in the process of rebuilding. She acknowledges the midterm elections brought some disappointments, but she contends it also had some positives, including higher turnout.

"What’s encouraging is that everyone that I’ve talked to since the election is still fired up, still ready to go and still wants to continue to grow — no matter how long it takes," Mancini said. 

In fact, she points to one positive result in particular. Democrats picked up one seat in the state legislature, the first such gain in nearly two decades.

Copyright 2018 WPLN News

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.