By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
Tennessee Democrats have launched one of the most important leadership elections in their history, a race to chair the state party that they hope will set them on the road to recovery.
The state party's executive committee will vote late next month to select a new chairman, replacing controversial head Chip Forrester after four years at the helm. Candidates for the position are already campaigning.
The chairman's race comes amid dissention over the status of a party that once dominated the state's political landscape but now can't claim a single elected statewide office. Critics say the party under Forrester failed to adequately support the party's candidates in last month's election, even as they give him credit for modernizing the party's infrastructure.
During Forrester's tenure, the party has suffered massive -- and sometimes embarrassing -- losses at the polls.
President Barack Obama lost the state by 20 percentage points, the Democrats' candidate for the U.S. Senate lost by more than 30 points, and their pick for the 4th Congressional District came up more than 10 points short in his bid to upset U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg, despite an ongoing sex scandal that made national headlines.
The choice of a new chairman will help set Tennessee Democrats' plan for turning their party around.
Many hope it will also be a chance to reunify a party that has been fractured by its fall from power.
"The last four years we've had a great deal of division within the Democratic Party," said David Briley, a state executive committeeman. "This is an opportunity for our party to build some consensus as far as direction."
Last month Steve Glaser, a Portland judge who lost his bid for the 44th House District, sent a critique to top Democrats in which he said Forrester and the state party had failed to support local candidates because they were too focused on helping Obama compete in battleground states such as North Carolina and Virginia.
Glaser said his seat, which had been held by a Democrat, might have been defended. Instead, he lost by a 2-to-1 margin.
"Just because the national party wrote off Tennessee, there is no reason for our own state party to take our local resources away from us," Glaser wrote. "We cannot be successful as a party if every campaign is left to its own devices. We must come together as a party and show a united front that resonates with all Tennesseans."
Glaser -- whose campaign suffered a setback in September when The Tennessean reported that he and his wife owed $88,000 in delinquent taxes -- declined to discuss his critique of the party last week.
But the sentiment is shared by other Democratic candidates, including some who won their elections.
"I didn't get any help from the state," said state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Antioch. "I did it without them."
Many candidates emerge
Jones is weighing whether to run for chairman. Four other people already have declared their intentions to run: Jane Hampton Bowen, the political liaison for a Chattanooga labor group; Dave Garrison, a Nashville lawyer and the Tennessee Democratic Party's current treasurer; Wade Munday, a Nashville nonprofit executive who once served as the state party's spokesman; and Ben Smith, a Nashville lawyer who advised Jason Powell's successful run for the state legislature.
They have until Jan. 26, when the 72 members of the executive committee gather in Nashville to vote on the chairman as well as other senior party officers.
"It seems like every day somebody's coming out, wanting to run, and I think that's a healthy thing," said Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, who is not a member of the executive committee. "But I think it's important that we get the right person, a person that understands that it's not as much about logistics as the message."
Top Democrats hope that, at the very least, the election will be less contentious than the vote in 2009, when Forrester won the chairmanship in a hotly contested vote. Forrester overcame the opposition of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and other top Democrats to defeat Charles Robert Bone, a top fundraiser.
Forrester won the chairmanship then by pledging to tap into Obama's campaign apparatus and to give the party's rank-and-file more say in affairs.
But Forrester's work hasn't brought much success at the polls. Since he became chairman, Democrats have lost ground in the state Senate and seen the state House go from evenly divided to a chamber in which Republicans hold more than a 2-to-1 majority. Tennessee Democrats also have lost the governor's office, and their seats in Congress have dwindled to two from six.
Bredesen said Democrats in Tennessee and across the South have been damaged by voter antipathy toward the party's standard bearers in Washington and elsewhere.
"The whole thing has just collapsed across the South," he said. "If you become seen as an arm of the national Democratic Party, (you) wouldn't get anything done."
The low point, perhaps, came this fall when Tennessee Democrats failed to rally behind the party's preferred candidate for the U.S. Senate, actress Park Overall, and instead nominated Mark Clayton, an unknown flooring installer from Nashville. Clayton had a spotty voting history as a Democrat and had worked in the past with an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center had labeled a hate group.
Democratic leaders disavowed Clayton as the party's nominee and urged supporters to write in another candidate in the general election -- any name voters could think of. Clayton was trounced by incumbent Sen. Bob Corker.
"It's hard to put together that the chairman did well and yet in the elections, the party did poorly," said Bob Tuke, a former state party chairman. "That's how I feel."
Forrester, his supporters and even many of his critics give him credit for refocusing the Tennessee Democratic Party. Forrester has reached out to traditional Democratic supporters, such as African-Americans, Latinos and organized labor, and included them in training seminars, focus groups and other activities meant to build their enthusiasm for the state party.
Those efforts have helped turn the party away from a mindset in which elected officeholders exerted nearly total control over Tennessee Democrats' agenda and campaign strategy.
Forrester also has tapped into the national party's Votebuilder database, which helps candidates map out their campaign strategies based on their demographics, buying habits, past voting routines and other information. Votebuilder has helped the party make more sophisticated pitches to voters, Forrester says, narrowing the gap with Republicans in a GOP-leaning state.
An evolving job
The next person who chairs the Tennessee Democratic Party needs to understand how to raise money, develop a political strategy and execute it, said Jones. Forrester, who has not held public office, lacked those skills, she said.
Most of the other candidates for the chairmanship agreed that Forrester's tenure had been uneven.
"The state party needs to be a service organization for Tennessee Democrats," said Smith, the campaign adviser. "A lot of what (Glaser's) complaint said was pretty accurate."
Bowen, the labor liaison, said Forrester had made strides toward reaching out to the unions. But Democrats based in Nashville have continued to have too much sway over the party.
"We've got to get back into the communities," she said. "I'm grateful for Chip ... but I think we're kind of behind as far as our county chapters and party chairman."
Munday, the former party spokesman, also said the party needs to focus on growing outside Nashville and its immediate suburbs.
"We do need to focus on building up our party through better messaging and through more support for our candidates and our county parties," he said.
Garrison, the party treasurer, said the next chairman's goals have to include promoting up-and-coming leaders and developing a message that will distinguish Democrats from Republicans.
"We're going to see Republicans control state government for some time now," he said. "They own it, and we have to hold them accountable."
The next chairman also will have to wrestle with a political climate that is changing fast, said Bone, Forrester's opponent in 2009.
Independent expenditure campaigns have broken the control state political parties once held over the message to voters. And donors willing to give small amounts of money are demanding that candidates connect with them personally before they will open their wallets.
"The role for political parties is changing in pretty dynamic ways," he said. "We're living in an era of big challenges."