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Evans

Democrats Need to Change

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Dec 14, 2012

Tennessee Democrats are in the position as national Republicans.  They are a minority and must change to be competitive.

The decline of Southern Democrats is the result of civil rights, national security, social issues and economics leading conservatives into the Republican Party and liberals into the Democratic Party. Today, this ideological sorting means that Southern Democrats are moderate liberals, which makes it extremely difficult to distinguish themselves from the national party. As a result, moderate and conservative Southern voters have deserted Democrats.

So what are Tennessee Democrats to do? While their chance of recovery is slim while Democrats control the White House, there are things they can do to lay the foundation for a revival.

First, the state party needs to retool to better serve candidates. The state party needs to train activists to serve in campaign positions, which should spill over into strong local party organizations.

The state party needs a chairman who can unite the party and who can raise money, coordinate Democratic interests and the legislative caucuses so they do not work at cross-purposes, and ensure that candidates in targeted races have the money to be competitive. Finally, the party must continue focusing on identifying, registering and mobilizing Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.

Second, the party needs to become an urban-suburban party. Historically, Tennessee Democrats have relied on a rural-urban coalition, but national and state trends clearly show rural areas shifting Republican. Today, Tennessee Democrats are primarily an urban, minority, socially liberal party, which makes it nearly impossible to win statewide elections.

For strategic purposes, the suburbs are a natural target because they are growing while rural areas are shrinking in population. If national trends are any indicator, the suburbs will become more Democratic as affluent urban minority voters move to the suburbs. Many white voters move to suburbs for better schools but commute to the city for jobs, which makes education and transportation policy important.

Republican resistance to more taxes and spending for education and roads may provide Democrats a beachhead as voters want more and better services.  Republicans focusing on guns and social issues alienates the business community and makes suburban women believe the GOP has the wrong priorities. 

Third, Democrats need to refocus on local government, especially mid-size cities such as Jackson, Knoxville, Murfreesboro and Clarksville. Local government is more pragmatic and allows Democrats to connect with business leaders concerned with schools, roads and economic development.

By running local government well, Democrats can create a more moderate profile, network with business people who fund political campaigns and use the regional media to gain suburban support. All this makes Democrats more attractive for higher office. Already, we see rising Democratic stars such as state Sen. Andy Berke run for mayor of Chattanooga while many expect state Sen. Lowe Finney to run for mayor of Jackson.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14 edition of The Jackson Sun