The white noise of state legislative campaigning is reaching an eardrum-bursting pitch as Election Day approaches. Woefully lacking in policy substance, as usual, these contests are notable mainly for the Tennessee Democratic Party's desperate struggle to survive as a viable political entity.
Two years after dropping 15 state legislative seats, in perhaps the worst debacle in Tennessee electoral history, Democrats have endured a brutal gerrymandering at the hands of Republicans. Now, they seem almost certain to surrender super-majority status in the legislature to the GOP. Republicans boasted a huge money advantage.
The once-proud party of Andrew Jackson and Al Gore is fighting back by going on the attack all over the state map.
Democrats unapologetically embrace the role of backs-against-the-wall warriors. Their much-maligned party chairman, Chip Forrester, announced last week he won't ask for another two-year term, predicting even as he headed for the door that "unless lightning strikes, we're going to be in the super-minority." But Democrats insist there's no quit in their campaigns. As one party strategist put it, "We're keeping our fist in their face."
As a result, voters find themselves pondering not questions of the economy, education or health care, but whether that glad-handing candidate they met at the barbecue last summer is in reality the evil scumbag in the Democrats' nasty advertisement this fall.
In an 11th-hour direct mail piece, Democrats are making certain voters know Greeneville Rep. David Hawk's wife accused him of assaulting her last March in an argument at their home.
"HE KNOCKED ME OUT," the mailer screams, quoting Hawk's wife in red letters.
Missing from the mailer, of course, are Hawk's claims of innocence. The state's latest "family values" politician to go to jail returned to the House of Representatives the next day and declared, "I did not harm my wife." He said he didn't have a clue how she came by that bloody lip and those bruises on her face.
His race is rated a tossup. Democrat Eddie Yokley, a former House member himself, is challenging him. Hawk managed to eke out a win in his Republican primary in August, and he says he's confident voters won't believe the allegations against him.
"They know what I'm capable of doing; they know what I'm not capable of doing," he said. His campaign slogan: "You know me. You know my heart."
Across the state in northwestern Tennessee, GOP Senate candidate John Stevens has been forced to try to explain why he ripped up a dying widow's last will and testament as she lay unconscious in her hospital bed, thereby preventing her estate from benefitting kids with cancer. Stevens, an attorney, claims the woman asked him to do it, presumably before she lost consciousness. A subsequent lawsuit over the estate was settled out of court.
Democrats also called out Rep. Andy Holt for spending the opening week of the legislature on an all-expenses paid frolic in Hawaii. He wasn't doing his job in Nashville because he was attending the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention. As the winner of Tennessee's Excellence in Agriculture Award, Holt — a Republican pig farmer from Dresden — was eligible for prizes including a brand new Chevy Silverado and a chainsaw. He didn't win either, but as a consolation prize he got a scorching attack from the Democrats.
"Voters elected Andy Holt to look out for their interests in the legislature, but when the session started this year Holt was busy looking out for waves off the beaches of Hawaii thanks to lobbyists," the party said in a news release.
Closer to home, Democrats slammed Sumner County DA William Lamberth, a GOP House candidate, for taking campaign cash from the father and lawyer of an accused wife-killer. Another Republican candidate, Charles Williamson, is taking heat for listing as his address an uninhabitable barn on property he owns in Goodlettsville, so he could qualify to run for the House from that district rather than the one he actually lives in.
"The Democratic Party strategy is to run a smear campaign," state GOP executive director Adam Nickas tells the Scene. "I think it was President Obama who said in 2008 that when you don't have a record to run on, you have to portray your opponent as someone not to vote for.
"That's exactly what we're seeing the Democrats do. They don't have a record to run on. We're holding Democrats accountable, and they are resorting to false personal attacks."
To which Democratic Party communications director Brandon Puttbrese retorts: "We're not slinging mud. We're slinging truth."
For their part, Republicans generally have remained content to stick to their simple but devastatingly effective strategy of attaching Democrats to President Obama, who is wildly unpopular outside the larger cities in this state. In the last election, Democrats complained that any candidates with a "D" beside their name were likely to lose. It didn't much matter what was said in the campaign.
Like Forrester, the respected insiders' publication of state politics, The Tennessee Journal, sees a "high probability" that Republicans will win their coveted two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate on Nov. 6. All they need is two more seats in each chamber. The Journal predicts the GOP will gain up to seven in the House and as many as six in the Senate.
The Journal's tossup races include two in Nashville: House District 60, where incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Gotto faces Democrat Darren Jernigan; and Senate District 20, where Republican Steve Dickerson faces Democrat Phillip North for the seat vacated by the retiring Democrat Joe Haynes.
As a super majority, Republicans could suspend the rules to conduct business any way they pleased — an unfettered power condemning Democrats to irrelevance. The minority party couldn't even pull out parliamentary tricks to drag out the inevitable GOP victories on legislation and policy decisions. That prospect has Democrats sounding alarms about the dangers of one-party rule.
"We've seen what unbalanced leadership does for Tennessee," Puttbrese says. "We've got schools that are being defunded, and teachers that are being attacked. We've got working families that are earning less for every hour of work they put in, and we've got unemployment that's higher than the national average. This is what extreme partisanship has gotten us. That is why Democrats matter, frankly."
Voters always say they don't like negative campaigning, but it works just the same. That's a political maxim that Democrats hope will hold true for one more election — to keep their party alive.