by Jeff Woods
The election left only nine House Democrats from the hinterlands, all but decimating the party’s once-mighty rural presence. Survivors have been cornered in cities, and 15 of the 34 remaining House Democrats are black.
In typical Tennessee Democratic fashion, Turner, who himself won reelection by only 723 votes, conveniently blamed the whole disaster on unpredictable swings in voter passion.
“If Mahatma Gandhi had been a Democrat yesterday, he probably would have gotten killed if he was in the wrong district,” Turner said. “It’s just a tough time to be a Democrat right now.”
Here's the Q&A:
Q: To what do you attribute what happened last night?
Turner: As you know the trend was going against us. But they spent a lot of money in the last few days, it appears. The guy running against me, I thought he was broke and all of a sudden he’s up on network television. And we haven’t really figured out where that money came from. So we’re going to take a look at that and see where they got all their influx of cash there at the end. That probably enabled them to take advantage of a situation that was kinda going their way anyway. There’s obviously a lot of disgruntlement out there. The difference between ’94 and today was in ’94 the Republicans had a plan. You know, the Contract with America. They don’t really have a plan out there right now. So this was a little surprising because of that. Basically, their plan is we’re against everything coming out of Washington. They don’t have any solutions. Here in Tennessee, we’ve had a balanced budget. We’ve got low taxes. We don’t have a lot of debt. And for the last 140 years with the exception of about four or five years, the Democrats have been in charge of the state legislature. So we’ve done I think a lot of things that people have asked us to do in the state of Tennessee. I just think there was so much anger at Washington. It was just a backlash at Washington, and we got caught up in it. I had nobody come to the polls and tell me they were voting for my opponent. I had people tell me they weren’t voting for me because I was a Democrat. … We’re going to start meeting here in a few days and figure out what we’re going to do next.
Q: What were you most surprised about?
Turner: I was totally shocked at Jim Hackworth and Stratton Bone. I didn’t see either one of those coming at all. As a matter of fact, Jim’s probably got a lot of money left in the bank to be honest about it. Mark Maddox too. That was totally off the radar screen. I didn’t see that one coming at all. Mark just got elected president-elect of the NCSL, which is a national organization that he will no longer be able to serve as. We lost some real good legislators. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I think most people at the end of the day would like to see good quality people in these positions. We lost some real good ones yesterday.
Q: Are the Democrats in this state basically hunkering down in the cities?
Turner: It would appear that way. I think it appears that way across the country, if you look at it. We’ve obviously had a disconnect with rural America, maybe rural Tennessee. We need to examine that to see how we can address that. A lot of the people who lost are very conservative. They are already very conservative. I think maybe part of it was some of the Democrats in rural areas might not have been fired up about the Democrats because maybe they thought they were too conservative. I don’t know. We’re going to have to analyze that and come up with a solution.
Q: Did the top of the ticket hurt you?
Turner: Oh, I think it’s obvious that for whatever reason Mike was not able to connect with the voters. I think Governor Haslam, the money that he had was just hard to overcome. All things being equal, this would have been a tough time for the Democrats to win the governor’s mansion anytime. But you take the ill wind against us and Bill Haslam’s money and charisma because he’s a pretty sharp fellow. Everybody seems to like him. But everything being even, it still would have been a pretty tough time for us to try to win that top spot.
Q: Is this the end of the Democratic Party as a force in Tennessee politics?
Turner: Well, I don’t think so. The way the country is right now, you know, we’ve had two sweeping changes in two years. We had a sweeping change that put Obama and the Democrats in power and we had a sweeping change that put the Republicans back in power here in Tennessee.
Q: Yeah but both of those sweeping changes meant major losses for Tennessee Democrats.
Turner: Well that’s true. And I think we’ll obviously have to look at things different. Before we do the strategy, we’re going to have to figure out what happened. Twenty years ago, the Republicans were down 60 something seats. They’ve slowly chipped away. I hope it doesn’t take us that long to get back, but we’re going to chip away at it and we’ll see what happens. In 2012, the wind may be at our backs. One thing about politics, nobody’s secure. I didn’t think I had a race until about two weeks ago when I woke up and said, oh crap. We’ve got a race. It’s on. … If Mahatma Gandhi had been a Democrat yesterday, he probably would have gotten killed if he was in the wrong district. It’s just a tough time to be a Democrat right now. The Republicans in this state, they’ve taken advantage of a national situation. They’ve not put a budget together in two years. They’ve been in charge for a couple of years. They’ve still yet to present a Republican budget. What they’ve done is, they’ve taken advantage of a national situation that quite frankly I didn’t know what to do about. There was nothing I could do to change what was going on in Washington. Unfortunately, the national Democrats chose not to put any money in Tennessee. The Republican National Committee and all the other Republican organizations put a lot of money down here. Money, unfortunately, has a lot to say about who wins. … This last influx was hard to overcome.
Q: Any concerns about what Republicans might do with their big majority?
Turner: Bill Haslam won the governor’s mansion, but I think Zach Wamp won the legislature. We’ve got some really extreme conservative people who just got elected. If they try to move to the extreme right, it will undo a lot of the things we’ve put in place in the past—the jobs program, the Race to the Top, a lot of the education reforms we’ve done. Pre-k will be gone. A lot of the things we’d draw the lines in the sand on with our 34 members and hopefully there will be enough Republicans in there who are forward thinking that want to do the right thing for education and jobs. And I think they are there. There are some really good Republicans on their side and hopefully we can stop some of this happening. But I think the trend will be to go way right, to pass a lot of these extreme positions. …
Q: Will you seek the caucus chairmanship again?
Turner: I’m going to talk to my members and we’re going to discuss it. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. If they want me to run, I will run.
Q: What about Democratic leader? Will there be a new House Democratic leader?
Turner: I don’t know if I’ll run for that position, either.
Q: So you might run for that?
Turner: I don’t know what I’m going to run for. I’m going to talk to my members and we’ll try to come up with something. It may be time to put some fresh faces up there. … We’ll talk to some people to find out what we need to do to right the ship. I don’t think necessarily what did in Tennessee was all that wrong. I just think we got caught up in the national trend. If you look at what we’ve done in the last few years in Tennessee, I think we’ve done well for Tennessee. We’ve kept taxes low. We don’t have a lot of debt. That’s everything that they’re asking Washington to do and we’ve done that. … I think that’s what people are asking for. I just think we got caught up in the national politics of this. Just having a D by your name, no matter good a person you are, you could lose.