Tennessee's once-proud Democratic Party is reeling from its latest defeat at the polls, and the finger-pointing is well under way. The governor, the party chairman, its main media strategist, and top state House leaders all are taking flak, and the liberal blogosphere is burning with scorn.
Even in a historically Democratic House district with the resigning incumbent's brother—a likable, down-to-earth guy with the magical name of Ty Cobb—as their standard-bearer, Democrats weren't just beaten last week; they were trounced.
The GOP candidate, Shelbyville trucking company owner Pat Marsh, won 56 percent of the vote, shocking Democrats whose last poll had shown Cobb ahead by five points.
The District 62 special election took on outsized importance because of the closeness of the House's partisan makeup. It gives Republicans a 51-48 advantage, making it that much harder for Democrats to retake the House in the 2010 elections. They lost it in '08 for the first time since Civil War Reconstruction. Whichever party runs the legislature after 2010 will boast the power to gerrymander their foes into marginal status for the next decade.
Both parties sent armies of volunteers into the Middle Tennessee district to knock on doors, plant yard signs and staff phone banks. Final financial figures have yet to be disclosed, but the two sides may have combined to spend $400,000 on mail, polling, TV ads and all the rest—double the usual amount for a contested House race.
Almost unanimously, as if they were reading from the same email (and they probably were), Democratic Party officials spun the defeat as a product of circumstances beyond their control. Partisan insiders may have been riveted on this election, but hardly any voters were. Because turnout was so light—only 9,000 people voted—the election was like a high school popularity contest, and Marsh simply was more admired than Cobb, Democrats say.
"It's not like your dog getting run over," says Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, chairman of the House Democratic political caucus, "but it's a disappointment."
"You win some, you lose some," Gov. Phil Bredesen shrugged after the results.
Liberal bloggers weren't so blasé. Their complaints ranged from the bumbling quality of the Democratic candidate to the conservative nature of his message. Cobb ran like a Republican, and voters obviously preferred the real thing in Marsh.
"[S]omeone oughta be fired, or at least have to run some sort of gauntlet," Democratic activist Sean Braisted fumed on his blog.
In the blame game, it's a target-rich environment. Among the Democrats on the hot seat:
1. Let's start at the top with the governor. He dropped by the district twice for rallies, but critics say that wasn't nearly enough. Nashville developer Bill Freeman, a former party treasurer, says Bredesen worked harder in his failed attempt to win an Obama Cabinet appointment than in helping Cobb.
"That was a critical seat," Freeman says. "My gosh, he should have turned out the support and the contributions and the manpower. He should have gone door to door. But he's just interested in one political candidate, and that's Phil Bredesen."
2. To win his election as party chair last year, Chip Forrester boasted about his abilities as a grassroots organizer. Success in a low-interest special election depends on turning out your supporters, and Forrester clearly flunked his first test, his detractors say.
Forrester blames the weather, not his own shortcomings, for Democrats' failure to vote. "It really rained in the afternoon, which is when a lot of working people who are Democrats get off and go vote," he insists. "The weather was a huge factor."
3. Bill Fletcher, the Democratic TV ad guy who relishes his reputation as the Green Goblin of Tennessee politics, produced a negative spot that may have backfired, his critics say. In the Democrats' only TV ad of the race, the House caucus bought roughly $80,000 worth of airtime for Fletcher's absurd attacks against Marsh as a scofflaw, vacationer in sunny locales and supporter of human cloning.
"It was awful," says one party insider, "totally off base for a special election" when paid media should focus on motivating supporters to vote. Instead, the ad may have turned off Democrats, causing them to cross over in disgust to vote for Marsh. Fletcher declines to comment about it.
4. Of all the targets, Turner perhaps is coming under the heaviest criticism. As caucus chair, it was his job to recruit the party's candidate. Cobb couldn't take off enough time for campaigning from his UPS delivery job, and that actually may have been fortunate because he was a terrible candidate, some Democrats say. Inarticulate and basically uninformed on the issues, Cobb's chief recommendation was his name.
But if this were a multiple-choice question, all of the above might be the correct answer for which Democrat deserves the most blame for last week's political train wreck. To be sure, Democrats are a dysfunctional family. The governor and House Democratic leader Gary Odom openly antagonize each other. Turner and Odom appear increasingly estranged, and hardly anyone really seems to care much for Forrester.
Talking to reporters last week, Turner pretended to fall on his sword. "It would be my fault if there's blame to go around because that's the job I'm in," he said. But asked to name any mistakes he made, he could come up with only one: There weren't enough Democrats waving signs at one of the voting precincts on election day, he said.
With that kind of critical thinking, a Democratic comeback is a long shot.