2018: The Year Shelby County Reshaped State & National Politics
Long neglected by the national parties and misunderstood as an “unwinnable red state,” Tennessee now finds itself as an important battleground for the 2018 elections, including the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of Senator Bob Corker. Crucial to winning in Tennessee will be the ability of progressives to rebuild a grassroots infrastructure and get out the vote effort in Shelby County. If we succeed, progressives will be able to regain the Governorship and a U.S. Senate seat. However, of equal importance, we will have positioned ourselves to reverse some of the nation’s worst gerrymandering and begin to return the Democratic party to parity in state politics for the coming decade.
Over the last decade, Gerrymandering has made Tennessee seemingly more Republican than it actually is. The state’s Congressional delegation is currently 2/7 D to R. Before 2012, this split was 4/5 - a much more even and accurate representation of Tennessee’s political breakdown. In the State House and Senate, the effects of gerrymandering are even more dramatic with the state going from essentially an even split of D/R in 2010 to the Republicans now controlling a supermajority status.
As gerrymandering has effectively taken meaningful electoral choices away from hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans, voter participation has plummeted to the point that in 2016 Tennessee had the lowest percentage of voter turnout of any state. While this fact is deeply embarrassing, Future901 also sees the opportunity in this. Voter turnout is low on all sides of the political spectrum and, in that environment, a large Democratic turnout could have surprising results.
Thankfully, this year, there are a host of exciting progressive candidates running to flip red districts in the legislature. Candidates like Allan Creasy, Dwayne Thompson, Danielle Schonbaum, Torrey Harris, and Katrina Robinson are energizing and drawing in voters that wouldn’t have voted in years past. Moreover, imcumbent Republican candidates like State Sen. Brian Kelsey are drawing multiple progressive challengers. Our new generation of candidates is carrying out the hard work of organizing once neglected districts and, with the right resources, they can succeed. Supporting candidates like these is one of the central goals of Future901.
With good candidates and with vigorous organizing, the current Republican majority is beatable. Indeed, in 2016, we saw this model play out with State Representative Dwayne Thompson. In that race, Thompson and his supporters knocked on tens of thousands of doors. With very little money, they managed to flip District 96 by a margin of under 400 votes. Thompson is seeking reelection in a seat we must now hold.
Instrumental in Thompson’s win was his Field Director, Allan Creasy. Creasy has now stepped up to run in District 97. He is bringing the same disciplined, voter focused, field-centered approach that he employed in the Thompson race. Currently, this district is one of the most likely pickups of any seat in Tennessee.
Similarly, first time candidate, Danielle Schonbaum has gained significant early support in her effort to unseat Republican Mark White in District 83. She is a graduate of the EMERGE program that is training the next generation of female candidates. She has used her training well and is off to an impressive early fundraising start.
Both of these General Assembly seats are within State Senate District 31. Republican Brian Kelsey currently holds this district. This suburban district is showing the same type of political realignment seen in special elections all over the country, with college-educated professionals fleeing the Trump-led Republican party. With a hard right politician like Kelsey as incumbent, in the current environment, this district and its state House seats are flippable.
Shelby County isn’t important just because of its potential role in redistricting or because we can make some state house or senate gains. It is also important because no state-wide Democratic candidate can win without a strong turnout from Shelby County. In 2018, with both the Governorship and a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, this makes Shelby County critically important.
As we are working with candidates to flip “red” districts, we are also supporting a new generation of progressive candidates to help organize and energize safe “blue” seats to ensure they are held by Democrats who hold Democratic values. State Senate candidate Katrina Robinson and State House candidate Torrey Harris are running to unseat conservative Democrats who have done little for their districts in past decade. Policy aside, the districts need vibrant candidates like Robinson and Harris to engage the electorate and give disaffected Democrats someone they are excited to vote for and who will serve their interests. Come November, the infrastructures built by these candidates in “safe” seats will be critical if Democrats are going to run an effective turnout effort.
For the same reasons, progressives must succeed in 2018 in electing a Democratic Shelby County Mayor. Shelby County will choose its next mayor in August. It is tempting to view that race as unrelated to our state-wide efforts. Yet it is very much connected, because a political organization that can turn out voters in August will continue to help support turnout efforts in November. Luckily, in Lee Harris, our county is fortunate to have a progressive that very much understands and fills his progressive leadership role. Not only is he pushing for a progressive and equitable vision of Shelby County that Future901 fully supports, he also gets his role in helping to support turnout efforts in November. Having served in the State Senate, he understands that there is much more he can do for Shelby County if he has more Democrats in Nashville.
Which brings us to why the rest of the country should care what happens in our little blue corner of this red state and all of the candidates running here. Shelby County isn’t important just because of its potential role in redistricting or because we can make some state house/senate gains. It is also important because no state-wide Democratic candidate can win without a strong turnout from Shelby County. In 2018, with both the Governorship and a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, this makes Shelby County critically important. Neither Phil Bredesen, who will be the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, nor the Democratic candidates for governor, Karl Dean or Craig Fitzhugh, have significant ties to Shelby County. These are all strong candidates with fantastic fundraising abilities, but their roots and support base are in middle Tennessee/Nashville. The political cultures in Nashville and Memphis are very different and popularity in Nashville does not translate into popularity in Memphis. Without a very strong turnout in Shelby County and Memphis, no statewide Democratic candidate can win.
Future901 hopes to be part of the solution. We are working to help fund and support progressive candidates. They need everyone’s help, particularly from the county’s safe districts. This is the battleground we see for 2018. What we achieve will have a substantial impact on state and national politics for the next decade or more. We ask that you support these efforts by giving to Future901 and the progressive candidates who are working to build a better future for our state.