Tennessee Needs An Army of Rural Organizers

Over the past 3 decades, Democrats have lost their foothold in rural America.

Once the bedrock of Democratic support, there are now hundreds of rural districts that are considered too “red” to even field a candidate.

The reasons people cite for this fall are many. Some might blame the prevalence of right wing radio and TV which dominates the media in rural areas. Others might point to gerrymandering, which has sought to fracture Democrats in rural areas. Still others might point to a consistent trend at the DNC of focusing on driving turnout in solidly “blue” areas rather than slogging it out in hard to win, more remote districts.

Personally, I think all three have played a role. But if I had to put my finger on a specific timeframe, I’d put the 1994 mid-term election near the top of the list…and just about every national election since. That election brought a new breed of Republicans, highly trained and well funded through a cabal of corporate funded “grassroots” organizations.

2000 Presidential election map – via 270towin.com

The 1994 election, and the ones that followed, changed how Democrats perceived they could win nationally. Rather than fighting hard to win back lost territory, Democrats chose to double down on critical mass in urban areas, which can work in some really big states, but not the mid-tier 7-12 electoral vote states.

People think Florida is the reason Al Gore lost the Presidential election in 2000. The reality is more complicated than that. Gore lost his home state of Tennessee…which, with 11 Electoral College votes, would have put him over the top and made the Florida recount moot.  That happened partially because the Gore campaign decided sinking resources into Florida made more sense in the long-run.

It almost worked. Unfortunately, rather than learning the lesson of the 2000 election (rural states matter), Democrats have doubled down on a strategy of specifically ignoring a growing list of states that are deemed “too red to win”. The result has been the loss of state legislatures and governorships en masse.

Now, out of power at the national level, and struggling to remain relevant in upwards of 31 state governments, Democrats have a huge task ahead. Tennessee is a shining example of just how “uphill” that battle will be.

The Ugly Truth

Partisan Breakdown of TN House Districts

This is a map of TN State House Districts by the party each representative holds.

It is dire.

There are 25 Democrats in the State House by my count. Just 5 in the State Senate. I couldn’t bring myself to publish that map.

This isn’t news to anyone. Its been like this, or some version of this since the 2010 election.

I’ve been writing about it since Democrats lost the majority of the State House in 2008.

Each time I’ve talked about it I’ve stressed that Democrats can’t win statewide with urban areas alone. This was made even more clear while I was analyzing the statewide results by County and Population.

Here’s a quick glance of what it looks like:

If you don’t like spreadsheets, let me break this down for you.

60% of Tennesseans live in Counties with a population of 250k or less.

More than 70% of those Tennesseans voted for the GOP candidate for POTUS. That’s 42% of the total electorate. No Democrat can win any election giving up on 42% of all the voters in the state.

If you’re thinking about running as a Democrat statewide, this is what you’re up against.

In the 2016 Presidential Election, the Democratic nominee only won the top five counties because of Shelby and Davidson Co. If I had made another split starting at 500k, the 250-500k counties would have looked similar to the rest of the state. (Ed. Note: I have made that change to the spreadsheet. It is reflected above)

We can’t win the state with Shelby and Davidson Counties alone. What that means is there has to be a real and concerted effort to get our message and our messengers out into the other 93 counties.

Democrats Need An Army of Rural Organizers

Indivisible Groups in Tennessee

Across the state there are groups of Democrats and Democratic aligned organizations. But very few of these groups can be found in rural areas. The Indivisible Group Guide is a shining example. Every major urban area sports at least one, and in most cases, several groups. But outside of those urban areas, it’s pretty slim. There’s only one group in West Tennessee outside of the region’s two largest counties…Shelby and Madison.

For Democrats to begin making a dent in the GOP supermajority in the state, we need a whole lot more organizing going on. We need an army of rural organizers.

Rural organizing isn’t like organizing in urban areas. People are more spread out. There are fewer media outlets. This can make organizing actions and gaining traction in the community more difficult.

The great thing is, there are models for this kind of organizing. The Rural Organizing Project has quite a few tools to help people organize in rural America. I found this organizing guide quite informative.

As an urbanite who spent much of his childhood in a rural farming town, I understand building an organization to win back rural areas has to be organic. It has to be run by people in rural areas. It can’t be imposed by people in Memphis or Nashville. Even Jackson is too far removed. It has to be organized from the ground up.

But it also needs support from people all over the state…including Memphis and Nashville. That support can include anything from training and the distribution of tools to helping fund specific goals.

Proof of Life

Now it may sound crazy, but this has worked in other red states. Look at Oklahoma. The state may have overwhelmingly supported #45 for President, but it also defeated a proposal backed by Corporate agriculture interests that would have crippled family farmers.

Clinton may have only won 28.9% of the vote in Oklahoma, but corporate Ag lost in the state thanks to rural organizing.

You might think this meant running to the right, but Joe Maxwell, the organizer of the campaign looks at it differently:

“Democrats don’t have to throw out their values,” Maxwell insists. “Democrats don’t even have to abandon their issues. It’s about how you frame it. It’s about connecting with people and showing them how your ideas fit with their values.” – Joe Maxwell Source

That’s what it takes, making a personal connection and showing people how it fits with their values.

Democrats aren’t doing that in Tennessee…or any other southern states. If anything, Democrats have a “live and let live” mentality about rural America that boxes rural voices out of the conversation.

That is why, without doing some serious organizing in rural communities, we cannot and will not ever win a statewide election. There are just not enough voters in urban areas to run up the score and win statewide.


Since 2008, both here and at Speak to Power, I’ve been advocating for more work organizing rural communities. It was one of the signature causes behind Speak to Power that Trace Sharp (aka Newscoma) and I identified when we started working on that blog.

At the time, we called on Democrats and Democratic organizations (party organs) to do more. What I’ve realized in the years since then is that it has to be a local effort. We’ve had 3 Chairs since the 2008 debacle: two from Nashville, one from rural west Tennessee, and none have been able to mount a real rural organizing effort.

Its not really their fault. Its not the role of a state party to micromanage local efforts. State parties need to support local efforts with tools and training…but they can’t run them from Memphis or Nashville.

So the task is clear for Democrats living in rural Tennessee. Its up to you to fight back against the things that are happening in your communities. Its up to you to ask for help and raise hell if you don’t get it.

That’s your task.

For people, like me, who live in urban areas, our task is to support these efforts without getting in the way. We’ve got plenty of work to do in organizing our own areas to maximize Democratic turnout without butting in to the efforts of rural organizers. But to the extent that we can lend our support, be it moral, financial, or tactical, we must. Its the only way we can win our state back.

10 Replies to “Tennessee Needs An Army of Rural Organizers”

  1. This all sounds well and good, but what does it actually look like in practice? You say those of us living in urban areas should “lend our support, be it moral, financial, or tactical,” but doesn’t it take a centralized state party to coordinate those things? If anything, I’d say the state party is too hands-off in terms of catalyzing rural activism. I’m really impressed by the potential of the state party’s Rapid Response Team newsletter, but it’s too Nashville-focused.

    1. We’ve seen a huge number of small groups of people organizing their neighborhoods or peer groups to action (via Indivisible, etc). Rural folks can do the same thing. They’re better placed to message to their neighbors. They don’t have the problem of being the “outsider”.

      This doesn’t have to be centralized. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been any real “centralized” effort to organize Democrats in rural Tennessee since Ned left the Governor’s office. It shows.

      There does need to be a mechanism for people to access tools, either through their County or the State party or other organizations the groups choose to align with.

      Its not going to happen overnight, just like losing the TN General Assembly didn’t. It will take a long time, and a lot of hard work. But its work city folk can’t force on rural communities. They’ve got to start it.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Agreed. As a Knoxvillian who grew up in Nashville, the Democrats have historically been Nashville-centric. It made sense when the largest population concentration in East TN was at UTK. But for 25 years of growth, no governor can win state office without East TN. Organizing up hear is a necessity if the Dems don’t want to be relegated ad infinitum to the bowels of capital.

  2. There’s a fourth reason for the Democratic party’s continued loss of ground in rural areas. It’s that the party has been cast as being elitist and condescending towards rural voters, and in some cases, yes, that’s correct. (Lots of rural conservative voters, when Hillary dropped that “basket of deplorables” comment, turned “Deplorables” into a badge of anti-elitism honor. Mix that in with social media algorithms creating echo chambers and it’s easy to see how most of the rural areas in the country are swiftly becoming red.

    If there is to be a change, there also needs to be better communication and leadership, lest the Dems once again inadvertently end up running the 2014 race where they ended up being represented by the likes of Charles Brown in the race for governor. (If you don’t know who Charles Brown is, go google his name and Tennessee governor. The man is a right-wing loon whose own relatives and neighbors didn’t know he was running for office.)

    1. I think this is all obviously true, but what are the practical steps that get us there? What kind of communication and leadership is needed to get rural Democrats active and organized? This state lacks even basic coordinating mechanisms, like a reliable email newsletter to provide up-to-date info on county and municipal elections/votes. Who is supposed to be in charge of this? How do we hold those folks accountable?

      1. RE: Coordinating Mechanism – I’ve lived in Memphis since 2004. Got active in local politics fairly quickly. I lived in Little Rock before that. I can tell you, neither place had effective coordination mechanism, and as best I can tell, neither still do.

        I think one of the mistakes people make is expecting someone to “take charge”, especially in a state as diverse as Tennessee (the 3 divisions are active mini-states that also have big differences between their rural and urban populations). Organizing is best coordinated locally, around local issues with local people advocating for a position. This is why I believe efforts have to be organic…and locally grown.

        That’s the main point of the post: to motivate people to take charge in their own (in this case rural) areas. Since I wrote it, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people in rural areas about what they’re doing, their challenges, etc.

        I think the state party and local County parties have a role to play in working with these otherwise organic groups…to the extent that their goals align. But I also know that many County parties are dysfunctional. Tying an organic effort to a failing organization means assigning that group a boat anchor to tote around.

        There’s been an effort (for 8 years now) to make county parties more open and action oriented. But organization have histories, and their own momentum. Groups of people need to feel free enough to establish their own groups, and by extension, their own momentum. Perhaps, over time, a group, or coalition of groups can take over a local party (though the biannual reorganizing process) if that aligns with their goals.

        This all sounds very messy and disorganized, and in a way, it is. It needs to be. People learn more valuable lessons from their mistakes than from their successes. Indeed, successes often teach the wrong lesson.

        So my advice is either do it yourself (which I’ve been doing since 2006) or find a group that aligns with your interests and be a part of helping them achieve the things you think need to be done.

        Accountability – On the county level, you can hold the party org. accountable by being a part of the reorganization process. Shelby County currently doesn’t have a party org due to issues I won’t get into here, but we will soon.

        On the State level, the TNDP has 72 Executive Committee members, 1 male and 1 female) from each State Senate District and 6 ad hoc members. Those members elect a Chair every 2 years. You can find your . If you’re not sure what state senate district you’re in you can look it up by your address here.

        Finally, if you have specific questions, please email me at my Contact page, and I’ll do the best I can to get you the information, or a resource where you can find the information.

        Thanks for the comments!

    2. Mike,

      I totally agree with you about the “elitist” thing, and at times in the past have been part of that problem. That’s one of the reasons I believe these organizing efforts need to be “home grown”, so the national conversation doesn’t become a proxy for the local conversation. The biggest obstacle to that is that, too often, the national conversation is what most people see/hear, and that has been a hindrance to people trying to organize locally.

      On a national level, Democrats need to speak more with compassion than judgement, and that doesn’t always come through. None of us can write speeches or statements for our national leadership, but I hope that those leaders will think about the larger impact of their words beyond their reasonably safe (urban/coastal) districts.

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