Ten Years in the Wilderness – TNDP

Tennessee Democratic Party

Its been 10 years since Democrats lost their hold on State Government. Does the TNDP have a plan to make it out of the wilderness?

The Tennessee Democratic Party’s State Executive will elect a new Chair tomorrow, Saturday. The race features three candidates: Current Chair, Mary Mancini, Williamson Co. native Holly McCall, and Murfreesboro native Chris Hale.

Since this is inside baseball, the only real option people like you and me have is to lobby our Executive Committee members. But since this election is coming up tomorrow, time is short. Right now, the expectation is that Mancini will win a third term, though there has been some active lobbying to flip votes.

But realistically, what does this mean for Democrats in a state that is ruby red?

In this post, I’ll look at some of the trend lines and the barriers to the party making headway in statewide and state legislative elections.

Statewide Trends

Generally speaking, if you split the state’s voters into two quasi-equal groups, you’d have the voters from the 10 largest counties in one, and the other 85 in the other.

Since 2010, Urban voters have made up just over 50% of the vote. Rural voters have made up just under 50%.

That rural-urban divide isn’t as easily diced up on a partisan basis.

In fact, outside of the state’s two largest counties: Shelby and Davidson, Democrats have struggled to win a majority of the Urban counties across the state.

You’ll note the big uptick in Democratic numbers for 2018. There are several really important things to note about those numbers:

  1. The race for US Senate in 2018 outperformed the Governor’s race in a very big way, skewing the numbers.
  2. This is the closest thing to a competitive statewide election since Bob Corker won in 2006.
  3. There was a lot of organic and outside organizing not related to the party structure that motivated people to the polls.

So while that may look encouraging, its also a wave mid-term, much like what we saw on the GOP side in 2010.

On the Rural side of the equation, Democrats, unsurprisingly, have done even worse. Democrats have averaged less than 30% of the vote in rural counties since 2010.

2018 is the first time in a decade that Democrats have enjoyed more than 30% of the rural vote. All the caveats above apply and that gap is still huge. To make any headway in state legislative seats, this gap will have to narrow considerably.

What’s more, the number of Democratic State Senate and House members is basically unchanged since Democrats got swept and redistricted out in 2010 and 2012. We can expect the 2020 redistricting to further constrain Democrats into more craftily constructed gerrymanders.

Second Verse on an Infinite Loop

Since 2008 I’ve been writing about the internal machinations of the TNDP. A quick count finds about 70 of my nearly 1000 posts over the past 10 years have talked about the TNDP in one way or another.

But as far as I can tell, the structural and organizational problems haven’t changed much.

Since 2008 the TNDP has had three Chairs: Chip Forrester, Roy Herron, and Mary Mancini.

County parties aren’t measurably more organized now than they were in 2008.

Messaging isn’t more focused now than it was.

Organizationally, the party seems to still have many of the same problems.

Hell, in two of the past five elections we’ve had one top of ticket candidate who was a member of a hate group, and another named after a Peanuts character.

There have been moral victories. But politics rests on electoral victories, not participation trophies.

Outside of Dwayne Thompson flipping a district here in Shelby County, there haven’t been many electoral victories on the state level.

And all this leads me to wonder if the State Party even matters outside of maintaining data for the national party and maybe some training for County parties.


What’s happened in Tennessee is similar to what’s happened in lots of states with large rural populations.

Democrats, who used to be solid with rural communities, have been squeezed out as rural America. Rural communities have lost jobs, opportunity, and hospitals. These are issues that Democrats should OWN. But there are structural problems standing in the way:

  1. the decline of local newspapers,
  2. the ascension of right-wing radio/TV and the culture wars they propagate,
  3. the belief that the Democratic Party is too out of touch with rural folks (also pushed by those right wing broadcast outfits).

These structural issues make it more difficult for Democrats in Tennessee. There aren’t that many more Urban votes to get.  Outside of the 2018 Senate race, Democrats haven’t won the majority of the urban voters. We have gotten killed in rural Tennessee.

Rural TN voters make up about 45% of the electorate. There’s no way to win statewide without gaining ground in rural Tennessee. Outside of a few individual efforts, I’m not sure how much durable ground has been reclaimed over the past 10 years.

I’d be interested to hear what the candidates for Chair have to say about rural votes. We also need to make headway in right leaning urban counties like Knox, Hamilton, Williamson, and Rutherford.

All that being said, I don’t have a vote. So I’ll sit back and see what the Executive Committee decides tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.